There is a story about the Greek playwright Sophocles and his eldest son, who clearly didn’t know him very well.
Apparently, by the time Sophocles was 90, his son grew tired of waiting to inherit the family estate. So, he took his father to court and tried to prove that he was mentally incapable and no longer fit to manage his own affairs. Sophocles defended himself by reading part of the play he was composing at that time, “Oedipus at Colonus,” and the charges were instantly dismissed.
Of course, on hearing this story, we all sympathize with clever and resourceful Sophocles and not with his greedy and unnatural son. In fact, if they had wills in ancient Athens, one hopes Sophocles cut his heir right out.
But pause for a moment and do some math. Sophocles was 90. If his son was, say, 70, he had good reason to believe that he himself would never be the patriarch of the family — already an old man in the ancient world, he might die before the time came for him to inherit. Certainly this doesn’t excuse dragging his elderly father to court, but it might explain something about the way the son was feeling.
What does the story mean for us today? Consider some statistics.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, America’s population of persons aged 90 and older has almost tripled since 1980, reaching 1.9 million in 2010 and still increasing. In the next 40 years, this population is projected to more than quadruple. Couple that with this fact: the majority of those older than 90 report having one or more disabilities, and many of them need help managing some aspect of their daily lives. So, who is taking care of them?
Often, the answer is their retirement-aged children. Traditionally, people have looked to the retirement years as a time of freedom from responsibility — a time to rest, pursue hobbies, possibly travel. Yet more and more retirees are finding a new job after retirement — one they hadn’t counted on having to shoulder.
Dr. Glenn D. Braunstein, in his article “Caring for Aging Parents is Labor of Love — with a Cost,” writes, “You can see hints of it in obituaries: A woman, 96, is survived by three children. A man who has lived to nearly 100 is survived by two children. How old, you wonder, are these children? And how much have they given to eldercare during their parents’ last years?”
He notes too, “We used to refer to a ‘sandwich’ generation, those people who had children late in life, only to be confronted simultaneously with teenaged angst and parents who need more and more help. Today, as people live longer, accumulating multiple chronic diseases along the way, the children of the oldest might just be easing into empty nests and long-awaited retirement when a new, very demanding, and unpaid job pops ups: caregiver for an elderly parent.”
And this can lead to resentment. Carol Bradley Bursack, author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” notes, “Many of today’s caregivers are couples who have both worked at paying jobs and who had a plan for retirement that included traveling or some other pleasant way of spending their later years. Now, with aging parents who have lived through health episodes that once would have killed them, or a parent who has lived beyond an age ever thought possible only to survive for years with Alzheimer’s, today’s couples are left with questions and often not just a little bit of resentment. Resentment isn’t a pretty emotion, and admitting those feelings to others will not likely bring pats on the back.”
Chung-Ming Lung’s mother was 102 when she passed away in June 2017. For the last two years of her mother’s life, Lung, now 73, had been living with her in Chevy Chase, Maryland, while maintaining a home in Charlottesville.
“I had urged her to move down here,” Lung remembered, “but she didn’t want to.”
Then her mother fell, and doctors said she could no longer live alone. So, Lung gave up her beloved cat — her mother’s apartment didn’t allow them — and took on a new responsibility. “I had to go,” she said, “but not gladly.”
Lung found many challenges when she began caring for her mom. Along with the difficulties of managing two residences and the day-to-day care of her mother, Lung was functioning on very little sleep. Her mother would need to get up three or four times a night, and her daughter had to be there with her to help her into the bathroom.
Nancy Grim, 70, had a very similar situation. Her mother had been living independently in a basement apartment in Grim’s house, but one day Grim came home and found her mother very agitated about the man upstairs with the loud music playing. There was no man upstairs, and no music, so Grim called the doctor.
“He said to take away her checkbook,” Grim recalled, and that was the beginning of the dementia symptoms that made it more and more dangerous to leave her mother alone.
Grim also lost sleep, because her mom, who went to bed early, would wake up around 10 p.m. and be too restless to return to bed. The day Grim realized her mother had used her walker to climb a flight of stairs was the day she decided she could no longer care for her mother in her own home.
Like so many others in their positions, Lung and Grim eventually looked for help, and the good news is there is plenty of help available.
One place to start is with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS). Its webpage (vadars.org ) includes a list of programs and services for older Virginians and their families and a link to 25 local agencies. You can find help on improving the accessibility of your own home as well as information on adult day care, area assisted living facilities, continuing care facilities and nursing homes. The Jefferson Area Board for Aging (jabacares.org) also has a website full of helpful information, including a link for caregivers.
Lung first found a home health aide to help her care for her mother.
“I would take a nap when the aide came,” she laughed, but the extra sleep made an enormous difference. Lung also discovered the benefits of concierge medical care, including a doctor who made house calls and who would reply to her phone calls and texts within 24 hours. A caregivers’ support group proved invaluable to Lung, and when the time came, she and her mother both benefited from the help offered by a hospice.
Grim moved her mother to Rosewood Village, and she found great relief in knowing that her mother was getting the attention she needed while Grim could continue to live her own life. At first she visited her constantly, but gradually she came to realize that wasn’t necessarily the best thing for her mom — a realization shared by Betty Lou Middleditch, 84, whose 103-year old mother is living at Our Lady of Peace.
“I was going to see her every other day,” said Middleditch, “but they told me not to do that. They said the residents won’t participate in activities if they are waiting for their family to come all the time, because they are afraid they might miss a visit. They told me to rely on their care.”
Besides asking for help, what advice would these women offer others who find themselves responsible for their parents during their own retirement years?
“I am thankful that my parents gave me the power of attorney,” Grim said. “That made it all so much easier. I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been without it.”
“Try to be patient,” said Lung. “There were plenty of times I got irritated and took out my frustrations on her. Instead, treat your parents every day as if they will be gone tomorrow. Be kind.”
For Middleditch, perhaps one lesson is to keep a sense of humor.
“When my mother was 101, she confessed to me the one thing that was most bothering her. ‘Do you think I could still get Alzheimer’s?’ she asked me. I said, ‘Well, if you do, it won’t last long.’ ”
Remember, too, that if you live long enough, you may find yourself in the same shoes as your parent — and use that knowledge to help you plan ahead, for your own benefit and that of your children.
“What’s frightening,” Grim said, “is that you know you’re at the end of your own life, and you see staring you in the face what could be your own future.” Consider, for example, whether you need long-term health care, and also whether it would be wise to give someone in your life power of attorney in case you become incapacitated.
Finally, look for the pleasure in the time left with your parents.
“There is joy in knowing that I am looking after her,” Grim said. “I think she still knows who I am. One day I walked in and she looked at the two aides in the room and said, ‘Mine!’ ”
Middleditch echoed this sentiment: “We are more than thrice blessed to have my mother in our lives.”
Judith Gardner is member and guest relations coordinator at the Senior Center.