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

Trying on a New Role
Since my father’s stroke, I have supervised my parents’ investments long-distance, and I have assumed legal control of half their money. I fly home when I can and worry when I can’t. I nudge my mother to hire more help. I send my dad letters with drawings in the margins and look forward to the ones he sends back, written in a cramped, spidery hand. Sometimes when I’m visiting from California, tears fill my mother’s eyes and she takes my hand in a soft, unfamiliar way. "If only you lived closer," she says.
For a moment, I wish I could respond like the selfless spinsters I used to read about in Victorian novels — that army of single women without other prospects who stayed home through the long years of their parents’ dying. I can’t do that. I’ve been on my own too long. Yet much to my surprise, and despite the strains, I’m finding the role of dutiful daughter far more gratifying than I ever expected.
I’m grateful I can help. I’m amazed I want to. I am an accidental inheritor of a long tradition of unpaid female altruism, without which most families would collapse when they hit black ice. Yet I want to preserve my own life — my livelihood, my dreams, my friends, my relationship, and my sanity-preserving walks on the mountain. This has meant learning to accept my limits.
For five years, I’ve groped my way through an unmarked landscape between two well-trod pathways for women’s lives. One is the path my mother followed: the ancient tradition of home-centered self-sacrifice, in which such notions as saying no, talking about money, and having boundaries are irrelevant, if not immoral. Then there’s the feminist road I’d taken for nearly 40 years: going out into the world to earn a livelihood, express myself creatively, and live a self-actualized life. But if I followed this path slavishly, I realized, I’d be in danger of denying my deepest emotional bonds. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
No fairy tale of filial devotion and no image in my storehouse of cultural cliches can guide me. I’ve had to learn when to say yes, when to say no, when to ask for help, and when to draw the line.
The Perils of Aiming for Sainthood
Being assertive wasn’t hard for me when, nearly 30 years ago, I helped crash the gender barrier on a city newspaper. Nor did I have trouble speaking out when I walked picket lines, negotiated raises, and participated in give-and-take with my editors. But when it came to family, my backbone melted.
My yeses, at first, brought enormous rewards. Visiting home the year after the stroke, I found my father sitting in the living room, stripped of all the markers of his professional adulthood. Gone were his wallet, his belt, his car keys, his watch, and the ID from the university where he used to teach. I quietly took him on a drive to check out local swimming pools, signed him up with a community van service, and bought him a waterproof plastic watch. By the time I packed to leave two weeks later, he was taking the van to the pool three mornings a week and doing water aerobics on his own. On my last day there, as I swam laps and he did his water walking at the shallow end, he looked over and said to me, "This is something I could really come to enjoy." He looked at his wrist. "It’s so nice having a watch."
That moment was more important to me than most of the articles I’ve written, more valuable than every plaque and hunk of engraved crystal that bears my name. My self-confidence took a leap, and so did my capacity for unconditional love.
In my teenage years and beyond, my mother had frequently called me selfish, and I’d been perplexed and cut to the quick. But I’d gone on to live much of my adult life as a single, childless career woman who loved her solitude, and I worried that my mother’s accusation was right. Now I had become the family heroine. I liked that.

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