Tag Archives: Baby Boomers

Elder-care duties call us to seek the best inside ourselves

I’d heard the news about women and memory loss by the time my sister sent her foreboding e-mail — “a little scary, sisters” — with a link to a story headlined: “Women Descend into Alzheimer’s at Twice the Speed of Men.”

One in six women has a chance of getting Alzheimer’s by age 65, compared with one in 11 men. I recognize that truth every time I count the female heads at our mother’s memory care building.

What is less in the news — but ever-present in the lives of thousands of Baby Boomers, the majority also women — is the stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

I’ve been my mother’s primary caretaker since February 2012, when she was diagnosed with the disease. I get the 6 a.m. phone call when she refuses to take her shower. I press the doctor about why he prescribed an anti-depressant without consulting me. I clean the toilet and the sink every time I visit.

These chapters of my life are writing themselves as I rush through them. Unlike my journal, I rarely linger long enough to reflect on how I really feel. All I can hope is that my sons observe the constancy and discipline, and that, one day, they will do the same for me.

Chapter 1: The Professional Caregiver

I joined 40 other scared, sad middle-aged people at a talk in late April by Charles Schoenfeld, a Wisconsin-based author who retired from truck driving and studied to become a certified nurse assistant in dementia wards.

“Human kindness can often reach where medicine and textbooks cannot,” said Schoenfeld, the only man in his CNA classes. “It takes a special person to work in these facilities.”

We daughters and sons or spouses and partners were invited that evening by a physicians’ group that services upscale memory-care facilities. But 800,000 people in the United States who have dementia live alone, without benefit of the long-term-care insurance that allows my mother to reside in a well-appointed place with daily activities, on-site nursing care and an aide-to-patient ratio of 8:1.

The cost of $5,500 a month will drain her financial resources and exhaust her insurance within five years. At that point, if she’s still living, county assistance will kick in.

“So, what do low-income people do who have Alzheimer’s or dementia?” I asked Schoenfeld, adding that every resident but one at my mother’s home is white and all of the aides are people of color, many of them first-generation immigrants.

“That’s a head-scratcher,” he said, clearly not expecting this twist at a white-table-cloth dinner hosted at a country club. Next question?

Chapter 2: Caregiving and Work

It would be dramatic, and inaccurate, to say I downsized my career a year ago solely to care for my mother. It is absolutely true, however, that a non-management job — and the 15 hours a week it nets me — makes my time with her more possible and more pleasant.Audrie Gage_06.15

Now that Mom can no longer shop or talk politics or converse on the phone, I focus on what we can do. I wash and style her hair when I visit. I attend and sometimes lead the seated exercise class — and tear up when the residents close by singing multiple verses, from memory, of “You Are My Sunshine.”

Mom has lost 12 pounds in six months as the disease has claimed her appetite and sense of taste. I sit with her at mealtime and urge her to eat. I bring her candy bars and sugared coffees from the Caribou nearby.

I’m grateful for those moments when my maternal instincts take over, when I sit beside her on the bed and rub her shoulders or stroke her cheek. When I am thinking less about my loss than her own. And I do it all unquestioningly and mostly without complaint. I take the responsibility as seriously as I did my duties to my children.

“Working at home,” “on vacation” and “sick child” are among the dozen or so descriptive magnets on the check-out board at work. Not one of them says “elder care” or “Alzheimer’s” or “gone to see my mother while some shell of her is left.”

Work-life balance is still defined as moms with kids.

Chapter 3: Caregiver Support Group

The first time I heard about the caregivers’ support group at The Alton Memory Care, where my mother lives, I pictured the group therapy sessions on The Bob Newhart Show of the 1970s. Kooks and cranks sitting awkwardly in a circle while a droll, befuddled expert tried to lead them back to mental health.

The image amused me till I recognized the kook and crank inside myself — and felt my resistance and resentment at having to sit around that table.

Two weeks ago a woman named Julie dominated the conversation. Her mom was just diagnosed at age 86, and Julie wanted to know every fact and facet about Alzheimer’s:Alzheimers word cloud

  • How many stages are there? (“Most experts say seven.”)
  • What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia? (“The former is a subset of the latter.”)
  • How is Lewy bodies dementia different from Alzheimer’s? (She had me there.)

“What does it matter?” I finally asked her, as kindly as I could. “You won’t be able to predict the course of this disease. Your mother will have good days and bad days. Every time you see her will be different.”

Our group leader steered us back to the strengths of people who have dementia. They live in the moment, observe non-verbal cues, always appreciate music and experience a range of emotions.

I note the absence of emotion every time I leave Mom’s building. I turn off the car radio and drive home stony-faced, in silence, seeking the distance between myself and the inevitable.

What Gen X Can Teach Boomers about Parenthood

At a time when the necessity and affordability of high-quality child care is back in the news, two Generation X mothers — educated, ambitious and deliberately underemployed — exemplify a model of work-family balance that provides a different solution to a persistent problem.

Who takes care of the kids when both parents work?

In the households of Julie Reiter and Liz Boyer, the answer is: It’s a family affair. “The most important job in the world,” as Chelsea Clinton recently described motherhood, is the work of mothers and fathers alike, in Reiter and Boyer’s respective marriages.

The “balance” in their families is less about women juggling responsibilities alone than it is both partners dancing daily through a life that is contradictory and complex, with trade-offs and rewards in equal measure.Juggling Woman

A recent conversation with these two Gen X moms convinces me they have learned from my workaholic generation — and that it’s not too late for us Baby Boomers to learn from them about priorities and possibilities, teamwork and trust.

Lesson 1: You can’t “have it all.”

Born between 1965 and 1980, Generation X was raised during what one analyst calls “one of the most blatantly anti-child phases in history,” when feminism, greater career opportunities and more access to birth control (and abortion) gave women a new range of options.

Gen X mothers are more skeptical than we were about the messages that society — and advertisers — are trying to sell them. (Remember the slim, sexy “24-hour woman” in the Enjoli perfume ad who brought home the bacon and fried it up in a pan?)

“You can do anything, but you can’t do everything,” says Boyer, 39, executive director of Macalester-Groveland Community Council in St. Paul and a Master of Science candidate in environmental studies. “You can be an astronaut, but then you can’t be home with your kids. You can be a lawyer, but then you can’t be PTA president.”

The mother of Ellie, 10, and Alex, 6, Boyer longed to be an at-home mom — a role that my generation shunned as old-fashioned and professionally limiting. But that dream was financially impossible given her husband’s career in education and nonprofits.

After spending two years “pissing and moaning” when Ellie was a baby, Boyer has made peace with having to be employed. “In retrospect, it’s made me a better mom to work part time all those years,” she says.

Having only recently started working full time, however, she acknowledges the career sacrifice she’s made, too: “I’d be at a different point in my career if I hadn’t had kids.”

Lesson 2: Share roles and responsibilities.

My husband and I used to call ourselves “Ozzie and Harriet in reverse,” with me as family breadwinner and him as self-described “Mr. Mom.” It was new wrapping on an old package that limited one partner’s family time and the other’s earning potential.

Now that our two sons are grown, I remember — and try not to regret — how much mental and emotional energy I gave to my career. When I wasn’t literally at the office, I often was thinking about work, or I was engaged in the freelance writing and aerobics teaching that helped me feed the family (and my ego).Gen X road sign

Reiter and Boyer, like other Gen X mothers, have a more fluid, seamless approach to life and work. They are present with their children, holistically, in a way that I couldn’t seem to manage. And while they care about their careers, work is not their first priority.

“I like to work hard. I love challenge,” says Reiter, 42, executive director of Union Park District Council in St. Paul and a Berkeley-educated attorney. “But I clearly don’t care about the career path, or I would have followed that route.”

Her husband jokingly calls her his “downwardly mobile wife.” Reiter was planning to practice in a prestigious downtown law firm when they met, and she still has more earning capacity than he does as a human resources specialist.

Today, they are partners in a shared endeavor to raise and support their son and daughter — Beyen, 8, and Beena, 7 — whom they adopted from Ethiopia as toddlers. Reiter’s husband works from home most days, giving her flexibility and him access to the children, and her office is two blocks away, allowing her to be home with the children after school and at dinnertime.

Lesson 3: Accept that life is unpredictable.

If I could do anything differently, I would worry less and enjoy the moment more. (My older sisters tell me that’s the benefit of being grandmothers.)

Between them, Boyer and Reiter have lived through job loss, pay cuts, ill children who spoke no English, arguments about whose turn it is to cook and buy groceries, and, currently, full-time jobs with tangible rewards but no benefits.

And yet: They laugh easily. They see the big picture. When Boyer was commuting from St. Paul to Chaska with a colicky baby at home who refused to take a bottle, she lamented to a friend that the life she’d created wasn’t working.

“You’ll keep tweaking things till it does work,” the woman told Boyer. “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”

Reiter’s mother was home full time until Julie was 15. “And she resents it to this day, the fact that she never had a life of her own,” Reiter says wistfully. “My mom says now: ‘It’s so good that the kids see you go off to meetings. It’s important for them to understand your work ethic.’”

She grins. “When we walk into the Neighborhood Café, my kids see people give me a hug and thank me for my work. I’m investing in this community, and it’s benefiting my family.”