Reflections on caring for an aging parent

Last week I vacuumed my old bedroom in the house where I grew up, certainly for the last time and my mom said perhaps for the first. My siblings and I are helping our parents move to a continuing care retirement community (CCRC).

I am a professor at Duke whose research and policy expertise is in how American society cares for elderly people. My current work focuses on helping adult children navigate the myriad decisions and transitions involved in caring for aging parents.

Caring for a parent remains oddly isolating given how common it is, I think because there is no easy way to learn how to do it. Once a parent dies, the hard-won knowledge of how to navigate a kludgy system is lost as survivors flee back to their lives.

I have had more experience caring for a parent than most people my age (51). My wife and I have been at least partly responsible for her mother’s care for nearly two decades, including coordinating several moves after the death of my father-in-law, and providing an escalating amount of help and support that culminated with her moving in with us. The plan that was supposed to be “the last move” didn’t even last one year. The strain and stress of providing in-home care nearly destroyed my wife, and precipitated moving my mother-in-law to a series of assisted living facilities, ending with the move to the facility where she now lives.

Intellectually and with some clarity, I can identify warning signs that a parent needs help, describe the difference between Medicare and Medicaid and why the distinction is important, provide advice on how to pick a nursing home for a rehabilitation stay following an injury, or how to pick assisted living for a long-term placement (my advice: visit unannounced the first time). I can also describe the complex transaction that is moving to a CCRC, and offer advice on whether or not to purchase long-term care insurance for yourself (maybe! It’s complicated).

However, until last week I didn’t fully appreciate that caring for a parent can turn your strengths into weaknesses. If you are an optimistic sentimental nurturer, you might miss the warning signs and end up with few options in a moment of crisis.

I avoided the overly optimistic trap. However, as an analyst, given to compulsive mulling of options, assessing the relative benefits of choices, who pushed for a plan of action based on my understanding of the facts, I faced a different challenge. As I vacuumed the room where I slept for nearly a decade, from age 9 to 18, I realized I was at risk of missing the impact of this moment on me. I needed to look up from the details of the move and be present so that I could feel and experience the end of an era. So I unplugged the vacuum cleaner, took a seat on the floor of my childhood bedroom, and just sat still for a few minutes, trying to take it all in.

Donald H. Taylor Jr. is a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and chair of the Academic Council at Duke. He is at work on a new book entitled “How to Care for Your Parents Without Killing Yourself.”