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

Hard Lessons in Setting Limits
I left in a depressed fury, staring out the window of the plane as it flew west, ticking off resentments. When my brothers hinted that they needed money, my mother gave them cash: $1,000 here, $500 there. But she had insisted that I pay separately for a Burt’s Bees lip balm that I’d put into her grocery cart. The old strategies of female altruism — help out, don’t be petty, it’s only money, she’s got enough on her mind — were no longer enough.
After I got home, I took a walk on the mountain with a close friend I’ll call Audrey, a successful artist in her 50s who manages finances for a widowed mother and a brother disabled by muscular dystrophy. She had recently had a stare-down with her mother, and she advised me to do the same.
Audrey had been staying at her childhood home in West Palm Beach when, one evening, the bedroom door burst open and her mother flew in, scolding her like a teenager for being on the phone past 11 p.m. The next morning, Audrey sat her mother down at the kitchen table. "I’m 50, and I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time. It isn’t your business when I go to sleep," she said. "If you ever walk into the room without knocking again, I will stop coming here and stop helping you. Do you understand what I’m saying?"
Her mother first tried to hold on to her old maternal power, saying, "Well, I am your mother." Audrey looked her in the eye and would not let the topic drop until her mother explicitly promised not to barge in again. (She hasn’t.) It was a necessary upending of the generational hierarchy, as brutal in its way as the physical knockdowns that sometimes occur between violent fathers and their strapping adolescent sons.
I was too upset to confront my mother face-to-face. Instead I wrote a letter demanding an apology and detailing her small but humiliating slights. She found my letter searing but shrugged off her behavior as "just impatience."
After that, I didn’t talk to her for months. I even flew east on business without telling her. On a train from Washington, D.C., to New York City, I heard the conductor call out "Meriden," the station five miles from my parents’ home. My stomach was in knots, but I didn’t get off.
A few months later, my mother sent me some newspaper clippings and then a letter and a book. She surmised I’d been east and hinted that she missed me. One day I called her. That Christmas I visited. My parents had settled into a manageable, though constricted, rhythm. A week later, reconciled and relieved, I flew back to my writing, my mountain and my partner, Brian.
Stepping Back
That spring, my father started losing his sight. After a trip to the pool, he could not remember how to get home and wandered instead down Main Street. Some months later, he went out for another walk, and my mother found him crumpled in the driveway, one eye covered in blood. A CT scan at the local hospital showed more bleeding in his brain, and he was taken to a crowded university hospital an hour away. There my 82-year-old mother stayed up all night with him while he lay delirious on a gurney in a hallway; they waited nearly two days for a bed.
She cried to me over the phone — he was being neglected, she didn’t know what to do. She needed an advocate. She needed a driver. She needed me. But I was exhausted, and Brian and I had booked a nonrefundable week in a cabin in the mountains.
It was time to say help instead of yes. I called the older of my brothers. He wouldn’t give up an upcoming acting workshop but was willing to go to my parents’ a week later. I said thank you instead of "I’ll do it."
Brian and I went off to our rented cabin, and I had a good, restful time. My brother, meanwhile, stayed east for three weeks, where he and my parents talked late into the night. He gave them emotional support that I realized was often far more skillful than mine. I had believed I was indispensable. Now I’d stepped back, and my brother had stepped forward.

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