Caring for an aging parent: A weighty but welcome duty

Aging is not a pretty thing.

At 92, my mother isn’t what she used to be. Once the executive secretary for a major life insurance company’s investment division, she now has great difficulty writing checks, balancing her check book or following a recipe.


Donna Olson, early 1970s.

The mother of three, wife of an independent businessman and planner of all details for all things, she forgets if she is going to the bathroom or just returning.

Once able to run, in high heels, to almost every restaurant in downtown Minneapolis for lunch, she now canes her way around our house in homemade multi-colored crocheted slippers: from the bedroom, to the bathroom, to the dining room, to the bathroom, to the couch, to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the bathroom, from the sewing room, to the bathroom. She needs an arm for stability if leaving the house.

Not long ago, she was blessed with the ability to be her lively old self for a short time. She can’t keep it up anymore. Her memory no longer holds the magic. At middle age, her famous bawdy jokes, fancy hors d’oeuvre trays and entrées of beef, pork or chicken made her the “hostess with the mostest.”

Our neighborhood threw a party to plan a party. She now has problems keeping food in her mouth when eating. She can’t remember jokes, much less the timing of punch lines. She can’t be left alone.

Once able to hear my sister or me sneak back into the house after curfew (our dog couldn’t hear us), she now is virtually deaf without hearing aids. Even with them, her pardon-me, deer-in-the-headlight expression of misunderstanding makes every conversation a test of wills. Directions for needlepoint, cookie decorating or decorating the Christmas tree are nonstop.

When she “goes to town” with us, she always puts on her face. She rarely gets out of the car, but her facial base coat is layered on like poorly poured Portland cement. She applies rouge over the top and always wears lipstick. Lipstick that gets everywhere: coffee cups, water glasses, shirtsleeves, foreheads and cheeks.

She has lived most of the year with my sister in coastal Oregon. Once a proud and hardy Minnesota native, she tires of the winter rain, grey skies and mildew of the West Coast. She tells me she misses the cold and the snow — but not going out in it. A visit with us in Montana gives her a dose of winter. It also provides a break for my sister.  Breaks are essential.

My mom enjoys the bright Montana sun, drifting snow, gorgeous mountains and pressing winds — out the window. She doesn’t know the Crazy Mountains from the Beartooths. They are all the same.

The presence of deer, geese, magpies and rabbits in our yard provides sidings from the memories she continues to lose. She wonders where deer sleep, if rabbits get cold, why the geese haven’t flown south and why magpies hide behind the rocks on the ground during blasts of wind. Then she forgets her questions and asks them again.

And, there are her obsessive compulsions. Never ending work on a mystical checkbook ledger or her jewelry box; the classy vestments she puts on in the morning to go nowhere; her choice of earrings and necklaces for her own pleasure; pajama time in the late afternoon; always — always — showing with thumb and pointer finger how much a “little” bit of milk, water, coffee or cocktail really is.

Disbelief is her ultimate misgiving. “Mom. There are 13 deer in our backyard.” Her answer is always: “Really?” Or, she will ask the inevitable question of affirmation: “Is that snow blowing?” “Yes, Mom.” “I thought so.” Making sure she still gets the world’s angles.

My wife is an angel. She knows that routine is the key. Each morning begins the same.  Each evening prepares for the next day. She makes sure that her pills are in order and timely; pee pads are removed from the bathroom wastebasket; her coffee not too hot or juice too cold. Her Metamucil mixed. Macular degeneration drops ready to go. She is always pleasant about my mother’s morning confusion, anger, giddiness, tears and memories. I’m still a teenager.


Larry Olson

The treasures of Donna’s traveling jewelry box. Everything in order. Jack-o-lantern earrings for Halloween are ready to wear.

Yet, my wife is not immune to the stress of caregiving. She awoke the other morning with the words: “Let the games begin.” But I knew what she meant. She set the daily necessities in motion. There was a spring in her steps — a sparkle in her eyes. Her ponytail was pulled tight with nice barrettes holding in the loose hairs on the sides.  She was going to be gone all day. She had jury duty. I was in charge.

My mother is not alone in this predicament. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that half of people over 85 years old suffer from some form of dementia and don’t know it.  The estimated number of people who will suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia in the years to come is staggering for a health care system that is broken. I’m a baby boomer.

Caregiving for the afflicted falls mostly on families. I am family. My sister is family.

In another couple of weeks, we will load Mom in the car and return her to my sister and the more temperate Oregon climate. My sister is very patient. In March, when my mom turns 93, my sister and brother-in-law will bring her back to Minneapolis. There won’t be a party because my mom has outlived all her friends, neighbors and family.  It’s a sad thought for her. My dad has been gone 25 years.

My wife and I will join them at the beginning of May. The house will be readied for sale, her worldly treasures auctioned off and she will come back to Montana for another stay with my wife and me. Summer sun.

Then, the caregiving will transfer back to my sister.

And so it goes, until it ends.

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