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

In fact, I liked that so much it took me years to notice that my brothers weren’t carrying much of the load. Middle-aged men whom my mother and I still called "the boys," they rarely visited. Jon, the youngest of us three, had been a long-haul truck driver in southern California and was now "taking a break" and living off his savings. My other brother (I’m withholding his name for privacy) was an impoverished actor who had been estranged from our parents for years. Perhaps in an expression of our female chauvinism, my mother and I neither asked for, nor expected, much from them.
Truth be told, this had a strange, perverse payoff. During one of my visits, as I was explaining my mother’s investments to her for the nth time, she sighed and said, "Thank God I have a daughter. Sons are useless."

Slowly Preparing for Death
Initially, this classic, sexist, and voluntary division of labor didn’t bother me. To the degree that I thought things through, I figured that we faced a short-term crisis, not a new life stage that would require of us new language, new roles, and the stamina of marathon runners. Although neither my brothers nor I put our thoughts into words, I think we assumed that my father would pretty much recover within a year or so — or die.
Things dragged on. My father’s heartbeat slowed, and doctors implanted a pacemaker, practically guaranteeing that this damaged man will live far beyond his ability to care for himself.
When my mother couldn’t sleep, I was the one who looked up her medications in the Physicians’ Desk Reference and had trouble sleeping myself. When her financial adviser mistakenly sold a chunk of high-interest bonds, it was I who got my mother to fire the woman and helped her choose someone better. The time I spent on family business bit into my earnings. The second post-stroke year passed, and the third began.
I’ve heard it said that quick deaths are easier on the dying and harder on their families. Slow deaths, they say, are harder on the dying but give family members more time to prepare, talk and accept. Within limits, that has been true for us. Exhibiting the stoicism, dignity, and patience that are part of his legacy to me, my father has doggedly settled for little victories and accepted losses. He learned to fasten his belt again, to comb his hair, to brush his teeth. With the help of a speech therapist, he returned to his computer and wrote compelling passages about being wounded by shrapnel in a foxhole in Italy during the Second World War. An old colleague from the university regularly took him out to lunch.
A Mother’s Love
At the same time, my mother grew stronger. She is descended from French Huguenot refugees who fled to South Africa, and with the toughness of her ancestors, she adapted. She hired a woman to give my father a shower three mornings a week. She learned to balance her checkbook and started doing it far more faithfully than I ever have. She became more accepting of human frailty, including her own. She took over my father’s computer and signed up for Netflix. She reestablished her morning routine of meditation and yoga. In my home in California, I returned to sleeping through the night.
As she grew more confident in her dealings with the outside world, I grew more confident in the natural kindness of my heart. Talking to her on the phone, I sometimes felt the protective softness mothers must feel. Finally, it seemed that my mother and I had erased decades of pain. I kept saying yes, and the approval I got in return was like a drug.
Then my father had another small stroke. He could no longer remember how to get his computer to open Microsoft Word. Not long after that, the honeymoon between my mother and me ended. I came for a visit, got the flu and extended my stay until I got on her nerves. I cooked my own meals in her kitchen and borrowed a pair of socks, which I returned without washing. Finally, irritated by my thoughtlessness, she stood on her doorstep and shouted that I was "selfish, excessive, and disgusting." I could have been a teenager again, standing in the cold, tears filling my eyes. There on the doorstep, as alive as ever, were my ancient angers and griefs: my craving for my mother’s love and my fury at not getting it.

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