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

Love and Money — and More Love
Family growth follows a zigzag path. A month later came another opportunity to put my foot down. My mother told me over the phone that she was giving my brother Jon $20,000 to buy the Jaguar he had told her would "improve his self-esteem." For years I’d felt guilty for being more financially successful than my brothers. Now I was done with guilt. I told my mother that unless I had a vote — and a veto — in major money decisions, I was going to stop managing the family assets.
At the same time, Jon began fiercely lobbying my mother to pay me for the hundreds of hours of family work I had done. I’d developed a tyrannical sense of grievance, he said, and it was poisoning the well and compromising my ability to be fair. At first, my mother called the idea ridiculous. Two months later, she came around. I still feel uneasy being paid by my family — shouldn’t I be pitching in out of the goodness of my heart? But now I can pay for bookkeeping and housecleaning, so I can help my parents without working through every weekend.
The way we deal with money is the most obvious change in our family, but not the only one. I listen more to my brothers. I ask them for help. We are now, and will always be, an imperfect family, but we’re doing our odd dance together with a lot more grace.
At my insistence, my mother did not fund the Jaguar. Instead, she gave all three siblings an equal chunk of cash, and agreed — again, at my insistence — that future gifts will be equal. Jon went back to work as a truck driver and saved his paychecks. Last week he got the first car loan of his life and bought himself a burgundy Jaguar with a tan leather interior.
The Tipping Point
I’ve learned, meanwhile, that I have to keep speaking my mind. Let me tell you about my mother’s recent visit to my home in California, the first she’d ever made without my father. My brother, the actor, picked her up at the airport. She got out of his car full of energy, dressed in her trademark black jeans and black-and-white scarf, as chic as ever. But I noticed she did not insist on her usual hour of yoga the next morning. I was shocked to see how bent she has become from osteoporosis. When we sat down for dinner, she put a pillow on her seat. I fed her expensive cheeses and put flowers in her room. I found her, as ever, entrancing and nerve-racking. I was delighted to see her.
She didn’t take over my disorderly household. But without criticizing, she brought little touches of order to the chaos, lining up the salt and pepper shakers, clearing off counters. I took her for short walks and showed her my office. My brother spent hours with her: They grew closer than they had been in years.
The final stage of my parents’ lives is bringing about reconciliations that I never would have predicted. Not long before my mother flew back to her exhausting and lonely life with my dad, she and my brother and I went walking along a California beach. After the sun set, we dropped in at a restaurant, and there we were, sitting in front of a gas fire in a beautiful yellow room, enjoying a feast of mussels and scallops and salads sparkling with dark red beets and white goat cheese. Apropos of god knows what, my mother said, in a hauntingly familiar combination of envy and disapproval, "The life you and Brian live is luxe." I could feel something coming. "There’s a lot of waste in your house," she said.
I felt the little bomb detonate, as if underwater, but it was my brother who called attention to it. "That’s rude," he said. There was a small silence. "It’s insulting and critical," I added. There was another small silence. But this time my mother didn’t come back with "You’re oversensitive." Instead she apologized, several times. It warmed my heart, and I forgave her.
It was a small moment, but it showed us at our best: my mother humbling herself, my brother supporting me, and me being my mortal self and not an invulnerable daughter-saint. I still marvel at my mother, not only because she is elegant in a way I will never be, but also because, at the age of 82, she is still growing. And I marvel that at 57, I am capable of changing too.

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