Archive for the ‘Looking back’ Category

Breaking the ice

Mom died five years ago. Today, I burned, recycled and threw away some of her mail from the early 2000s. It was the first batch of her many belongings in my basement that I’ve gone through since she died.

I’m used to having a messy basement. I grew up in a house with a ridiculously messy basement. At the bottom of the steps, we took a sharp left turn to access the narrow path to the washer and dryer in the back room, where the furnace was. When I was finished with a toy or grew out of my clothes, I’d go to the bottom of the steps and toss whatever I was discarding into the pile of family junk that filled up most of the main room.

Our basement in this house has gone through phases in the 22 years we’ve lived here. The woman who owned the house before us let her dog use the concrete basement floor as a toilet, so it started out bleachy-clean. Over the years we’ve accumulated various household goods and, in 2007, we stored a bunch of Mom’s things downstairs after we moved her out of an apartment and in to assisted living. Were I more organized, I might have discarded mail dating back to 2001 at that time, but I didn’t. Nor did I organize the hundreds of loose photos that were scattered around her apartment. While she was still sick, I couldn’t bear the thought of doing any more work related to Mom than what I was doing as her caregiver. After she died, I pretty much shut down to completing any task related to Mom. And I’ve stayed that way for five years. So her belongings have remained untouched.

In January 2019, we renovated our kitchen, and moved most of our kitchen items to the basement. With some of those things still downstairs gathering dust and a pandemic elliptical machine in the process of being shipped, we have reached an agreement: We will spend some amount of time every day working on getting the basement in order. (For the record, Patrick is much more dedicated to this kind of work. I find it overwhelming – even though it in no way resembles the basement of my childhood.)

So today, after doing some organizing in the laundry area and setting aside clothes for donation, I grabbed an accordion file folder of Mom’s labeled “Mail to go through.” I sat on the living room floor with Mom’s file folder and sorted the contents in three piles: fireplace, recycling bin, trash.

Things that caught my eye:

  • Mom looked into cremation in 1996 – nine years before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Mom paid certain bills in installments, and wrote notes to herself about how much she had paid on what date, and how much she still owed.
  • Mom had collections of different kinds of stickers – smiley faces, Christmas trees, dogs. I kept the dog stickers.
  • Mom had a CT scan of her abdomen in 1997. I remember vaguely that she told me – after she knew she was OK – that she had had a health scare. That she had been concerned she might have pancreatic cancer. At the time I was hurt that she hadn’t told me earlier. But now I understand – and the parallel strikes me as … perhaps meaningful, but probably just a coincidence?
    • I had a CT scan of my abdomen Monday. I got my results today – all clear, no abnormalities in any organs and an update on the misaligned vertebrae in my lower back that I’ve known about for years. I talked to my doctor about unexplained lower abdominal pain a few weeks ago, and she ordered the scan out of an abundance of caution. I saw on the order today that the screening was for possible gynecologic cancer – which I understood was probably the case, but hadn’t been explicitly stated. I haven’t told anyone about that scan except for two colleagues, but in only vague ways. There was nothing really to tell people because I didn’t know anything. Why cause alarm when I didn’t have any answers? I assume Mom felt the same way. That said, it did cross my mind several times this week that I wished Mom were around to talk to while I waited for my results.

When I’m 54

Though I don’t care much about the transition to a new year, I was perfectly happy to put the 2010s behind me — a decade marked by the death of both of my parents, and the hardest of my caregiving years with Mom. In 2020, I thought, I could focus on looking forward rather than getting hung up on past sad events.

And then I got sick, on Jan. 2. And I couldn’t talk to Dad about it. Even as a middle-aged adult, I want to talk to Dad when I don’t feel good. That’s just how it has always been. In my case, having a physician for a Dad has meant talking to him about all kinds of ailments, whether they’re related to his specialty or not.

My sister Laura talking to Dad during our summer vacation in 2018. I believe they had some discussions about health, too.

What started as a cold morphed into an ear infection and then, after 10 days of antibiotics, I had an apparent recurrence of viral symptoms that still bother me somewhat to this day, more than four weeks since it all began. And I feel very sorry for myself. Missing Dad does not help.

I don’t know that I would have called Dad about this particular bout with bacteria. But I put something on Facebook about taking antibiotics; Dad, a daily Facebook user, would undoubtedly have checked in on my timeline to see how I was doing. And then probably would have again a few days later. (I am confident this would be the case because Dad makes frequent appearances in my Facebook memories, which is both wonderful and heartbreaking.) Being sick has also meant for most of my adult life that I should stay away from Dad because, because he was a transplant patient, his immune system was suppressed. He spent one whole winter several years back fighting what he suspected was whooping cough. So minimizing his exposure to germs was important.

This has evoked many childhood memories of my various illnesses and accidents. Poor Dad was called in for doctor duty even though we didn’t live with him after my parents divorced. When I was very young and fell on my face in a neighbor’s driveway, he took me to University Hospital at Ohio State to get stitches in my forehead. When the wound had healed, he came over to remove my stitches as I lay draped across his lap in a chair. I was squirmy and did not make it easy for him. He visited when I got chickenpox, and he identified the reason my throat was so sore, which was an abnormal symptom: I had a chickenpox blister on my uvula.

I had multiple cases of tonsillitis as a kid, and as a result my tonsils are enormous. I wanted to have them removed but Dad said no. “They’re there for a reason.”

In eighth grade, I had an astounding total-body case of poison ivy. To this day, I don’t know how I got it, but my body responded as if I had rolled in it. My face was in full crust mode by the time Dad came by to examine me. “You look like the Incredible Hulk,” he said. I cried, being an unrecognizable 13-year-old girl who itched from head to toe, and was therefore very sensitive. He took me to a dermatologist colleague’s house after work on that occasion, and we left with a prescription for a tapered dose of steroids that cleared me up quickly.

I have small veins like Dad did, so blood draws can be complicated. In high school, I helped organize a blood drive. Near its conclusion, I sat down to make my first blood donation. The Red Cross staff could not find a good vein — though not for lack of trying, by poking me in the arm repeatedly. I was embarrassed, sore and upset, and that failure was so memorable that I have never tried since to give blood. I got mono later that year. Dad took me to the hospital to confirm the diagnosis, and I told the phlebotomist she’d have a hard time drawing my blood. She rolled her eyes and got the sample she needed on the first try. I’ve always been thankful to Dad for taking me to her.

Most recently, in 2018, he talked to Patrick and me through our cases of influenza — my mild case, thanks to my annual flu shot, and Patrick’s lengthier case that involved taking Tamiflu. And Dad, a gastroenterologist, was the obvious go-to when Patrick had diverticulitis. They had a couple of marathon phone sessions talking about symptoms and treatment options.

As I blogged about Mom, I was often frustrated that I didn’t have very strong memories of my day-to-day life growing up, and that many of my memories related to negative events. Similarly, memories of my weekly visits, along with Jeff and Laura, with Dad after our parents divorced are not vivid. But the memories I do have about my encounters with him during my childhood are much more likely to be positive, even if they revolved around being sick. My guess is the value of having his attention increased dramatically after he no longer lived with us. In fact, I have no memories of our family life — or of any part of my life — before he moved out, save for a select few isolated events — like how my neighbor friends made fun of me for walking around shirtless when I was about 4, trying to be like a boy.

I should have known that the start of a new decade wouldn’t make one bit of difference in how I think about my life. The past is important — especially as I age and try to draw on lessons I’ve learned, or remind myself of problems I have solved, or take pride in what I’ve accomplished personally and professionally. And, most important of all, as I remember my parents, and others, who are gone, with the benefit of wisdom and gratitude that comes with the passage of time.


At Dad’s memorial service, my sister Laura read a poem she had written in February 1994. By this time, Dad had been hospitalized for several months, waiting for a donor heart. And my niece Julia, Laura’s daughter, selected a poem to read for the service. I have been meaning to share them here for some time.

by Laura Caldwell

Everywhere I look I see your heart.
It’s pulsating on the stove in the meat sauce
marinating with sugar and cumin to fill
my children’s plates and stomachs.
And woven into a wool muffler it
circles my daughter before it shapes
my lips as they kiss the rose on her cheeks.
Imprinted in the gauze of a band-aid
stuck to my skin, it continues to
dress subtle abrasions and inflamed wounds.
So solidly are your arteries built
into the bricks of my mantel, I cannot imagine
that blinking embers could still.
If only I could collect all of these
hearts, graft them into a valentine and
deliver them to your sterilized room,
Maybe then your new heart would come.

Written February 14, 1994. Dad received his heart 10 days later, on Feb. 24, 1994.

by Ruth Stone

All things come to an end;
small calves in Arkansas,
the bend of the muddy river.
Do all things come to an end?
No, they go on forever.
They go on forever, the swamp,
the vine-choked cypress, the oaks
rattling last year’s leaves,
the thump of the rails, the kite,
the still white stilted heron.
All things come to an end.
The red clay bank, the spread hawk,
the bodies riding this train,
the stalled truck, pale sunlight, the talk;
the talk goes on forever,
the wide dry field of geese,
a man stopped near his porch
to watch. Release, release;
between cold death and a fever,
send what you will, I will listen.
All things come to an end.
No, they go on forever.

from In the Next Galaxy © Copper Canyon Press, 2002 


Bereavement leave, one year late

Mom’s death occurred at a difficult time for me – not that it ever would have been a “good” time for her to pass away. But professionally, I was a wreck: Our office had lost four total staff members in the preceding several months, and I was also transitioning from one position to another, which was intended to be a promotion. Unsurprisingly, it took months for the transition to be made official. So I was trying to do my old job as well as the new one, the volume of work was as high as I had ever experienced because we were so short-staffed, and I was trying to prove myself worthy of a promotion without actually knowing exactly what that promotion would be. So let’s just say I was experiencing a tremendous amount of work-related stress.

Some may remember that she also took a very bad turn while Patrick and I were away on a vacation to celebrate my 50th birthday. We arrived at our rental on Bald Head Island, N.C., on Sunday, I got a worrisome call from the Alz center on Monday and on Tuesday, a nurse told me she might not make it through the night. We sped back to Columbus on Wednesday to find Mom stable but showing obvious signs of labored breathing. I spent most of Thursday, my 50th birthday, at Mom’s bedside until about 5 p.m., when I got a massage that Patrick had scheduled for me. That evening, I wrote the first draft of Mom’s obituary.

This year, Patrick and I entertained thoughts of returning to Bald Head Island to try again for a birthday vacation. We thought we would fly instead of drive to save time and have a shorter trip. While I was looking at flight options and finding no good options, I began to cry – not because of the frustrations with scheduling, but because I realized I didn’t really want to go. And not wanting to go to Bald Head is a very unfamiliar feeling. My interpretation of my emotional response is that I anticipated that I would be reliving much of that period of time as I approach the first anniversary of Mom’s death. And the early departure from vacation was disappointing and upsetting and frightening because I thought Mom might die before I got home. So, for now, no October visits to the island. We now have our eye on a spring trip.

I am thinking a lot about that difficult week last year, from the Tuesday (Oct. 20) I realized we needed to get home to the next Tuesday, Oct. 27, when Mom died. I don’t care that it all occurred around my 50th birthday – that created an interesting symmetry to my caregiving life. Mom was diagnosed a couple of weeks after my 40th birthday and died five days after my 50th birthday. Ten years, and 20 percent of my life – for some reason, I find meaning in that timing.

But I do regret how bad I was at taking care of myself. I finished my vacation time watching over Mom and spent two days of the following week by her side and the third just collecting myself on the day after she died. I went back to work two days after her death, at that time thinking that keeping busy would be better than being alone at home. (My brother and sister had the same experience – they missed very little work and had to travel two weekends in a row. And when Patrick’s dad died in 2013 and he struggled with taking time off of work because he would miss an important meeting, I said to him: Nothing is more important than your dad’s death. And your colleagues will understand that.) We had the memorial service on Saturday, and I returned to work on the following Monday. And it was clear to me that day, and for many days after, that I should not be at work, that I needed time to grieve and to rest. But I didn’t. I was so desperately busy – all of us in my office were swamped – and I just felt I would be consumed with guilt if I took more time off. Guilt would be worse than grief, I reasoned.

Today, one year later, we are at full staff and I’m no longer uncertain about my role in the office. That makes taking time off easier, of course. But I also have a different perspective about self-care and don’t intend to deny myself R&R again when I clearly need a break. It’s better for my health and will make me a better worker and colleague. In lieu of traveling, Patrick and I are taking a staycation today through next Tuesday. My birthday falls in the middle, but even better than that is committing to six days of letting our wants and needs dictate how we spend our time. Patrick is studying for a licensing exam and I might do some deep house cleaning. Or, I might not. It has lifted my spirits in a way I didn’t expect to schedule this time off and decline to set any expectations for myself. It’s not really bereavement time, exactly, but it is definitely put-Emily-first time. Better late than never.

Going there

If I were so inclined, I could cry five or six times a day. But I am not inclined. What a mess I’d be. I make this claim, though, because my eyes threaten to generate tears in response to a variety of stimuli: a moving radio story, cute pet photos, news of a tragic death (human or pet, which may seem ridiculous, but it’s the truth), a positive human interaction that gives me a warm feeling, my own rambling thoughts about Mom. Etc. I always stop myself, though. I kind of feel like if I let myself cry, I won’t be able to stop … at least for a long while. So I don’t go there. As my brother Jeff so aptly put it when I threatened to cry when leaving New York City last fall after our sibling visit, I suppress (it’s helpful to visualize here the lowering of hands as if pressing down on something. In this case, emotions).

I think of this as a lasting element of grieving. But I suppose it also could be that I am a middle-aged woman whose hormones are playing tricks on her. I really don’t know.

I do know that thoughts of Mom drift in and out all day, every day. I recently told a friend/co-worker about the emergency department experience we had when Mom fell and needed stitches. (That was five years ago. Seems like yesterday.) We were talking about our experiences with various medical staff – in this case, their shortcomings. I remembered the doctor was confident Mom’s stitched-up wound would heal in a cosmetically satisfying way. And that the automatic blood pressure cuff scared Mom. I can laugh when I tell these stories and she did some funny things on that day. But then I fret about how scared she must have been. And how, that long ago, she could not understand instructions or make sense of the world around her. The doctor asked if her neck hurt and she replied, “Bonnie Caldwell.” That is funny. But I shudder to think about her physical pain that resulted from that fall, and her inability to tell us what hurt.

I began writing this post on Aug. 24. Since then, two anniversaries have passed: Aug. 27, 10 months since Mom died, and Aug. 28, what would have marked seven years since she moved into the Alz center. Facebook memories from Augusts past have been full of reminders of her transition from assisted living to standard nursing home, being kicked out, and her improved mood upon moving to the Alz center. And also last August, when we had a family staycation in Columbus, and we were all together with Mom – including her two granddaughters.

The bumpiness of this post is a good representation of how I feel these days: scatterbrained, fretful, wistful, grateful, sorrowful, joyful, grumpy, peaceful.

Mostly I just wanted to check in. Mom is still a big part of my life.


A slightly shorter version of this will run in the Columbus Dispatch Thursday, Oct. 29. Laura, Jeff and I worked on this together. The photo is from Laura’s wedding in 1988. Beautiful, isn’t she?

bonnie obit photoBonnie Ann Aitken Caldwell, 78, of Columbus, died Oct. 27 at Columbus Alzheimer Care Center. She was born on June 6, 1937, to Howard and Mavis Aitken in Springfield, Ohio. Bonnie played sports at Northeastern High School and was valedictorian of the class of 1955. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Ohio State University, and held a number of professional positions in that field. Later, she put her accounting talents to use in the circulation department at the Columbus Citizen-Journal and Dispatch. She worked in the College of Education and for the Friends of the Libraries at Ohio State and completed her career in the Registrar’s Office, retiring in 1997. In her personal life, Bonnie maintained a close circle of friends throughout adulthood, enjoying intellectual pursuits and social gatherings. A lifelong learner, she had a great appreciation for the arts. She took frequent trips to New York City and traveled to visit her children, and especially enjoyed seeing her son’s musical performances. She loved a good book and a good laugh. She was an excellent and playful grandmother to Julia and Lily Edwards, who survive her, and offered a thoughtful ear and parenting insights to her older daughter. She is predeceased by her parents and brother-in-law, Gary Lough. She is also preceded in death by her beloved cat Petunia, and loved all of her furry grandchildren, too. Bonnie is also survived by children Laura Caldwell (Marc Edwards), Jeffrey Caldwell and Emily Caldwell (Patrick Keenist); a sister, Nancy Lough; and four nephews: Scott, Barry, Garth and Chad Lough, and their families. On Nov. 3, 2005, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. For most of the following 10 years, and especially the last six at Columbus Alzheimer Care Center, she was funny, affectionate and social – an excellent subject for her younger daughter’s caregiving blog. Bonnie had two boyfriends and told stories in her own special language. Even with little strength, she could give her ear a thorough scratch and share smiles. Donations may be made in Bonnie’s memory to the Alzheimer’s Association Central Ohio Chapter or Friends of the Libraries at Ohio State. The family thanks the dedicated staff of Columbus Alzheimer Care Center. Thanks also to Gentiva Hospice. Calling hours are 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, at Southwick-Good & Fortkamp Funeral Chapel, 3100 N. High St., with a brief memorial service at 1 p.m. A celebration of Bonnie’s life will follow from 2-4 p.m. at Studio 35 Cinema & Drafthouse, 3055 Indianola Ave.

Losing a friend-of Mom’s, and mine

Almost a year ago, I wrote about how Mom had accompanied friends on their honeymoon to Spain. One of my lunch lady friends, as I call them, had found some old pictures of Mom and gave them to me. I called her JW at the time, not sure if she’d want to be identified. Now, I think it is OK. Her name was Joanne Wisemiller. She passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, on Jan. 24. It is just unbelievable to think that she is gone. And of course, it stirs up all sorts of thoughts about her and her husband and daughters, who are close to my age, and memories associated with Mom.

Joanne and her husband were Mom’s friends for as long as I can remember, having bonded first over their love of bridge. For years and years, Joanne and Gerry hosted July 4 parties at their house along the Upper Arlington parade route. I’m pretty sure I drank my first bloody mary at one of those parties, sneaking sips when no adults were looking. As I got older, I especially appreciated Gerry and Joanne for their humor, and I always thought they were such fun friends for Mom to have. They also took good care of her.

The last time Mom got drunk (as far as I am aware) was at a party at their house in celebration of a mutual friend’s wedding. Mom wanted to leave before the party broke up, but her keys had been taken away. So she started walking home, but pooped out about a mile into her trip. She called me from a pay phone at a gas station on a busy street corner – but not busy at this time, which was about 1 a.m. Lucky for Mom, I was home from college for the summer and was able to pick her up. I found her sitting in the grass at this corner. When she got in the car, she asked me for a cigarette, though I didn’t even know that she knew that I smoked. I gave her one. And after turning on the lights inside the car, I discovered that someone had used eyeliner to draw a mustache on Mom’s face. It must have been some party, and Mom had obviously had a good time. And the hosts didn’t let her drive drunk.

All this time that I knew Joanne as a kid and young adult, I was not at all aware of her professional life. After I had been at Ohio State for awhile, I discovered that she was a high-level administrator in our agriculture college – but I still didn’t know her history. I learned years later, when I was invited to join the lunch ladies, that her past included communications work at Ohio State – which is what I do. The lunch ladies all worked together years ago in the medical center or in university communications. After I left the medical center communications office, a friend still working there introduced me to the lunch ladies, and I became part of a longtime weekly lunch tradition. I have always felt fortunate that they brought me into their fold. And it was a bonus to see Joanne so frequently, and to be her friend. Since I joined the group about seven years ago, we’ve been a party of six. And now, five.

Joanne and I would occasionally talk about Mom at our lunches. Often, we recalled something funny, or I would give brief updates on her health status. We had that shared history, but we had just as much in common as friends who appreciate good writing and reading, some therapeutic girl time and a cathartic rant. She and Gerry were such excellent partners in life and have always led an incredibly active social life. The lunch ladies and I corresponded over email all day today, worrying about Gerry and mourning our friend. I find myself thinking, as terrible as it sounds, that it’s not fair that Joanne has died and that Mom still lives on with this terrible disease. There is nothing sadder than the gradual and painfully lengthy loss of my mother. The jolt of losing Joanne intensifies the sadness. Mom is not dead, but the Bonnie we all knew is long gone. And now a significant part of her life, and mine, is gone, too.

Unhappy anniversary

I was already planning to write a post today because it is the 9th anniversary of Mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Nov. 3, 2005. I remember much of it well; other details, not so much. Mom, my sister Laura and I visited my coworkers after the appointment because my office was right across the hall from the neurology clinic at the time. What a surreal scene, Laura and I numbed by the diagnosis even though it wasn’t necessarily a surprise. And Mom probably just going with the flow. She hadn’t had a strong reaction to being told she had symptoms of dementia and that her condition closely resembled the Alzheimer’s type of dementia. None of us cried or anything. Just a lot of nodding our heads.

And then NPR announced the death of Tom Magliozzi of Car Talk, from complications related to Alzheimer’s. That really makes me wonder what happened. He and his brother retired just two years ago. It strikes me as so unexpected for someone who is only 77 years old (Mom’s age, too) to die of Alzheimer’s so soon after ending a highly visible professional life. Could it have been pneumonia? He could have fallen and had a brain injury. Maybe had difficulty swallowing and choked? I really want to know even though it certainly is none of my business. And as I said on my Facebook page: “If one is going to have Alzheimer’s, I believe that less is more. He is free.” It’s terribly sad to know such a robust radio character experienced this terrible disease. And yet, he and his family have been spared the prolonged agony of a very slow decline. Considering his death is a shock and a difficult loss for so many listeners, the news spread quickly over social media. And of course I personalized it: His brief Alzheimer’s experience made the reality of Mom’s illness that much starker as I ‘observe’ the anniversary of her diagnosis.

Mom is still imprisoned, still a blank slate, but thankfully still apparently at peace. I had hoped to visit her over the weekend – I took a vacation day Friday with thoughts that I would visit but didn’t even get out of my pajamas for a shower until 4:30 p.m. Then yesterday I was determined to go, but I felt a little sick. Today, with the anniversary at the top of my mind, I felt such urgency to see her that I went to the Alz center before work, arriving around 8:15. On my way there, I had my usual thoughts: Could she be dramatically different since I saw her last? Is she still content? Will she respond well to my presence?

I found her sitting in a chair near her room. She was sort of out of it – tired, I assumed. Still waking up. I recalled the aide who said during my last visit that Mom doesn’t like to be rushed in the morning. I rubbed her arm and head and just sat with her. An aide came to get her for breakfast, and she and I heaved Mom out of the chair and led her to a table. She seemed a little miffed but kept shuffling along as we held onto her arms. We sat together waiting for her tray. An aide asked if I would be around to feed her, or did I need to get to work. I opted to stay. I still think of Mom as able to feed herself, but I’ve been told before and again today that aides like to help Mom eat to prevent clean-up of the enormous mess she makes. “I like to make sure she gets her nutrients,” an aide said today.

And so, I fed Mom her breakfast: French toast, a boiled egg, cereal and juice. She ate every bite. The dietary director has told me a number of times that Mom likes to eat dry cereal. But I poured milk over it and fed her bites that way, and she had no complaints. I praised her repeatedly. She was passive for most of the meal, but by the time I was giving her a final drink of juice, she was laughing at me. A little fuel was all she needed to become her usual self. I enjoyed our time together. I’d like to be there more, to help with her meals. It’s a pleasant way to spend time with her – a little bit intimate, in some weird way – and I’ve anticipated that I’d want to help the staff as much as possible once she needed help with eating. It will be interesting to see if I can pull off more frequent visits at mealtime.

Revisiting NY Times asks: Are caregivers healthier? Jury’s still out

I am honored that I was asked to participate in a social media event to call attention to the challenges facing caregivers of aging parents. It is hosted by Caring Across Generations (on Twitter, follow #blog4care and/or @CaringAcrossGen). I am technically challenged, however, and messed up an attempt to reblog a post from November 2013. It appears below, and the original, with a few comments, is here. I selected this post because the “New Old Age” blog post that triggered it covered an important issue: the health of caregivers. Could it be that caregivers, despite the stresses of taking care of a sick loved one, somehow experience a gain in terms of their own health? One study suggested that might be the case. But I write about research for a living and I am aware that one study is … one study. Still, the suggestion that there is a “caregiver gain” intrigues me. I do worry about the physical toll of the long-term stress I encountered earlier in Mom’s illness, and wonder if the slow burn of relentless daily thoughts and worries about her might shorten my life somehow. But psychologically and intellectually, I appreciate where I stand on the issue of caregiver health: In my opinion, my health is as important as my mom’s. It would be very difficult to convince me otherwise.

NY Times asks: Are caregivers healthier? Jury’s still out

Posted November 2, 2013

I read the “New Old Age” blog in the New York Times when I can, and a recent headline caught my eye: “Are caregivers healthier?”

The post is about David Roth, director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health, who published a recent study in The American Journal of Epidemiology that lends support to the “healthy caregiver hypothesis.” As writer Paula Span describes the work, Roth inserted a few key questions into a large national stroke study, enabling his team to compare about 3,500 family caregivers older than 45 with noncaregivers of the same age, gender, education level and self-reported health. After an average six-year follow-up, he and his colleagues found that the noncaregivers had significantly higher mortality rates. Nine percent of them had died, compared with 7.5 percent of caregivers, who were 18 percent less likely to die during the six-year period — a nine-month increase in life expectancy. That amounts to “a considerable survival advantage” for caregivers, Dr. Roth said.

Span also notes: Of course, you don’t need to be a statistician to see that if the burdens of caregiving can be overstated in studies like these, the benefits might be, too. … Some people in some situations find that the responsibilities of caregiving (a.k.a. “caregiver burden”) take a toll on their own health and well-being. For others, a different set of conditions may produce what gerontologists call “caregiver gain,” including both psychological and physical benefits.

Span solicited comments. So far, there are only 11, which seems alarmingly low. Mine is among them, and it has received 8 recommendations from other readers:

For me, taking care of a mother with Alzheimer’s sharpened my perspective about what is important in my own life. I turned 40 about two weeks before she was diagnosed. I was keenly aware of research detailing the health effects of stressful caregiving. I took a pay cut to change jobs, leaving a very stressful office for a job with a saner pace and a wonderful boss. I started therapy, enrolled in a clinical trial about caregiver health and began blogging. Eventually, I took up meditation. I never cared for Mom in my home, but I have been her POA and the “responsible party” since her diagnosis in 2005. There is so much guilt, so much concern for the patient’s well-being, of course, and just endless decision-making to do what’s best for the patient. But I have been adamant that caregiving would not ruin my life. It might sound selfish, but I think it’s also fair. Why would my health and life have to take a back seat to my mom’s? In a nursing home devoted to patients with dementia, she is safe, content and her physical health is better now than it was 10 years ago. In my caregiver support group, I have frequently made a point of saying: “We matter, too.”

Bonita, Lady of Spain

I have lunch most Thursdays with a group of women who have worked or still work in communications in various parts of the university. One of them happens to be an old friend of Mom’s. They met over their shared love for bridge and were serious players at one time, playing weeknights at a club in our neighborhood and often attending weekend tournaments. And a funny thing I’ve always known about their relationship is that Mom accompanied this friend and her second husband on their honeymoon, in Spain. I don’t know if she’d want me to identify her, so I’ll call her JW.

At a recent lunch, JW gave me two photos from that vacation in Spain. Her brother-in-law recently died and she had been going through pictures for his memorial. I had seen one of the photos before, of Mom in her swimsuit, her hair in a bandana and a bandage on her chin. Mom had taken a spill at the hotel (I think) and bashed her chin. I’m pretty sure she had stitches, and that she covered up her hair because she couldn’t wash it without risking getting water on her wound.

Mom, a third wheel on her friends' honeymoon in Spain.

Mom, a third wheel on her friends’ honeymoon in Spain.

I had seen this photo before, but didn’t remember the details. I was pleasantly surprised to see she is petting a puppy. Mom had loved dogs her whole life, and was an excellent grandma to my two dogs, letting them out daily until she couldn’t remember to do that anymore. Her swimsuit is also so familiar. I’m sure I’m wrong, but it seems as if she wore that same suit every year for my entire childhood. During summers, she liked to lie out in the sun in the back yard, always in that suit.

This next photo was new to me. I love it.

Mom and friends, probably having cocktails.

Mom and friends, probably having cocktails.

My lunch lady friends thought that I resemble Mom in this photo. I think so, too. “And she’s so pretty,” I said, not meaning to claim anything about myself. It is just a classic Bonnie look. She has a cigarette in her hand, appears to be reaching for a beer. She’s wearing a sweater that I recognize. And that hairstyle – she had that same general style until she was a grandmother, probably. Though my hair is now short, I think I have hair like hers. But mine is grayer now than hers was at my age – it’s possibly grayer than hers is now. My hair has thinned with age and has some uncooperative waves, and would probably look like Mom’s in this photo if I grew it out again.

JW and I calculated that Mom was 37 in these photos. That is striking to me, that she was so much younger in these pictures than I am now. I find aging to be an interesting experience and I am not troubled by it a bit. But I do often imagine that Mom must have been so much older than she really was as I grew up, just because it’s odd for me to think of being old enough to have a youngest child in college, which was the case when she was 48. Meanwhile, I am childless, but I’ve had a sense since she got sick that Mom is the “child” I never had. And she is 76 years old.

I had always known that Mom went on that trip, but I didn’t know why. JW said they were talking over drinks at the Blue Danube, probably after playing bridge, and JW had learned of a very affordable trip to Spain chartered through a veterinary association she freelanced for. She and her husband, married about six months, decided that sweet deal would be perfect for the honeymoon they hadn’t yet taken. And Mom said, “I want to go.” And so it was. That’s a great thing about Mom’s adult life – she had a terrific circle of friends. JW said it worked out very well – a threesome, she said, attracted locals interested in chatting, and they really enjoyed that interaction. Mom actually had a flirtation with a bullfighter that they met. He was short and had a scar from being gored. When the three were preparing to leave, he wanted to join Mom on the plane (JW functioned as a translator with her minimal Spanish). Mom declined. I do remember how she described his reaction: “Stu-PEED!” Like so many of Mom’s experiences, it made for a great story.

%d bloggers like this: