The Good Daughter: Becoming the Family Caregiver

How a daughter became family caregiver to her aging parents and how elder care redefined the family’s boundaries.

By Katy Butler

Parents and Children
For 40 years, until my father had a stroke five years ago, my mother and I were mirror opposites, each brilliant in realms where the other could barely cope. Except for her two years as a high school art teacher, she had never worked outside the home, and I had never worked within it.
She made sure her Connecticut household ran like a fine Swiss watch. She could sew a silk blouse from a photo in Vogue, cut my father’s hair, stain a deck, make coq au vin with her own chicken stock, refinish a dining room table, and knit a sweater. After her blonde, Grace Kelly twist turned white, she had taken to wearing her hair gathered loosely at her nape. In slim black jeans and a cashmere sweater, she was more elegant than I could ever hope to be.
Before my father’s stroke, however, she had never balanced a checkbook. And in all my adult life, I had never been supported by a man or raised anything more complex than a ficus tree.
She and I were often at odds when I was young. I felt I could never measure up to her standards, and she thought I was oversensitive to her criticism. So after college, I fled to California. There I spent my working days in clattering newsrooms and tiny rented offices. I interviewed mayors, picked stocks, negotiated leases, translated neuroscience into kitchen-table English for the New York Times, and won awards. But the tailor hemmed my pants; Whole Foods roasted my chickens; and every two weeks, Renata cleaned the house I shared with my man. The rest of the time I tolerated levels of household disorder that would have driven my mother nuts.
Then, on an October morning in 2001, my father, a retired university professor, collapsed on the kitchen floor. When my mother called me in tears, something primitive rose from my core and pushed me onto a plane and straight to the hospital where my father lay. My two brothers stayed put in California. Six weeks later, with my father ready to go home, I flew out a second time and found my mother a caregivers’ support group, a doctor specializing in medical catastrophe, and a lawyer specializing in elder issues.
Now I watch her struggle with ambiguous loss — my father is not quite alive and not quite dead — and unending physical caretaking. He can no longer shower unaided, and he struggles to complete a sentence. He is becoming her child, and she in some ways is becoming mine.

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