"When I Married My Mother"

July 11, 2009 5:44:49 AM PDT
There's a huge increase over the last decade in the number of parents living with their adult children in the United States. The term "the sandwich generation" was coined in the 80s, to describe people who care for their children and their parents at the same time. The new book "When I Married My Mother" highlights the growing trend of the inter-generational households. The author, Jo Maeder, joined us with details. Most people can't stop working, or work from home, or move to where their aging parent is, or even have a parent move in with them due to lack of space. Does caring for a parent the way you did really make a difference? Is the trade-off in quality of life for them worth the toll it takes on the caregiver? Is a lot of this motivated by guilt?

I'm not trying to lay a guilt trip on anyone. This is not the right solution for a lot of people. Sometimes the parent is too disabled or doesn't want you to do it. Some enjoy assisted living. There's no one-size-fits-all answer, but try to talk about it before you need to. Look into a Long Term Care or Home Health Care insurance policy. They may not be as expensive as you think.

Often when an elderly person says they're fine and you know they're not, they're terrified. It can be nearly impossible to uproot an elderly person, especially one who is a hoarder as my mother was. I never thought I'd say this, but praying helped immeasurably. Our prayers were answered, but not in ways we ever imagined.

I've now heard so many stories of people doing what I did and having the same positive, transformational results. The word "gift" is often used. Multi-generational living arrangements are on the rise driven by economics as well as a growing need some people feel to reconnect with a family they lost while pursuing their dreams. Someone once said, "You spend half of your life getting away from home and the other half getting back." That's exactly what this felt like to me.

What if the elderly person refuses to go along with any plan of action?

As a last resort, the Department of Social Services can come in and remove them if they deem them an endangerment to themselves. Before that happens, do your best to keep their house in good condition. If the value falls, it affects all the neighbors. Would you want that to happen to you? If you see this happening to an elderly person in your neighborhood, before butting in and maybe doing the wrong thing or taking on more than you can handle, just try talking to the elderly person. If you really think that person cannot live alone, say something-gently but firmly-to the person's family. Do it anonymously if you must. They may be desperately waiting for an external nudge to step up to the plate. For me, it was when her next-door neighbor wrote me an email that said "I fear she'll soon be with God."

One of the prominent themes of your book is selfishness (looking out for myself) vs. selflessness (helping someone who can't help themselves). How did you balance the two? Or did one win out over the other?

My New York therapist thought I might have Rescuer Syndrome and that my mother could not be rescued. But I felt, because of a run of bad luck in my own life at that time, that we were rescuing each other. We both left our former lives to form a new one together. My "sacrifice" ended up being anything but that. I gained far more than I lost.

There's a term for what you did: "The Daughter Track," a woman who leaves work or reduces her hours so she can care for an elderly parent. What are the financial ramifications of this decision?

Anywhere from bad to catastrophic. A lot of companies offer day care, maternity leave, and time off for family emergencies, but elder care is very different. For one thing, you have no idea how long you'll be needed. It could easily be years. There's the "anticipatory grief" you feel that is worse, in many ways, than the actual passing of a loved one. Losing a parent is unbelievably emotional and stressful. Even if you had the most understanding company in the world-and only about 3% have any kind of elder care benefits in place-how could you do your job well?

There is simply no way you can work a full-time job and do this. The person needs someone to oversee his or her life and care. I was lucky in that I could work from home doing voiceovers but I still took a big hit financially. Here's how I look at it. Yes, it's harder to find a job later in life, but it's not impossible. What's impossible is bringing back someone once they're gone. Do all that you can while they're still alive. You'll never regret it.

What did you learn about mother/daughter relationships?

They're very complicated and very simple. But if you're not right with your Mama, you probably not going to be right with anyone. I am a far happier and calmer person now.

It's estimated that at least 8 million people move every year to another state. Is there really a difference, other than accents, between Northerners and Southerners anymore? Isn't everyone well mixed by now?

There were far more cultural and arts events, and just plain hip, funky folk in North Carolina than I ever imagined. But there's still a reason why it's called the Bible Belt. The omnipresence of religion in the culture was extremely different from what I was used to. You see people praying before meals in fast food restaurants. You hear "Have a blessed day" all the time. Where else can you see an episode of the Andy Griffith Show wedged between the five and six p.m. local newscasts? I think it's quite charming most of the time. I could live anywhere now, but there's still no place like New York.

Why is care-giving more on the woman (daughter/daughter-in-law/wife)?

I think men are more uncomfortable seeing their parents in a vulnerable state. And a son "toileting" his mother makes everyone uneasy. It's just the way it is. But like childrearing, they should step up to the plate in whatever way they can. Absolutely. If they can't help literally, then they should help financially or there will be a lot of resentment that will only get worse over the years.

You basically gave up a personal life for three years. How hard was that?

Oh, but I did have a personal life. A very rich and interesting one. It was just completely different from the one I'd had in New York where I was the "Samantha" of my gal pals. Some of them claim I turned into Charlotte! It was effortless, really. I needed to take a break from dating more than I realized.

You were a DJ on Z100 for many years and left at age 47, far older than the artists you were playing and your listeners. What was that like?

I was older than the mothers of some of the artists and listeners! It was wonderful and weird. Radio was my first love. But after thirty years, it just wasn't the same. And they were hiring nineteen year-olds as Zee-Jays. I was ready to move on but just couldn't let go. I still love to listen to hit radio and always will.

Your mother was a classic hoarder. Her house was ultimately declared uninhabitable by the fire inspector. How did you deal with clearing out her house?

With a lot of Advil, countless dumpsters, and hired help. It was horrible. There's no other word for it. It took six solid weeks. One guy we hired kept saying "It's a journey, man. It's a journey." He was right!

Five Tips For Intergenerational Living

"My mother and I were not close when her decline began, I had a very busy life far away, and I was not thrilled with the idea of moving, living with her, or being a 24/7 caregiver. Yet what I feared would be some of the worst years of my life turned out to be some of the best. Here are a few tips for anyone who is in a similar situation." - Jo Maeder

Watch Your Words
The way you speak, speaks volumes. Avoid talking about an elderly person in the third person in front of them as if they weren't there. Don't yell if they're not deaf, or speak to them like they're five years-old. If they have dementia, try not to say "Do you remember" or "Don't you remember?" Replace "Let me help you" with "What would you like me to do?" Be gentle but firm in your communication, not condescending.

Mi Casa es Su Casa
If an older loved one moves in with you, integrate their belongings with yours and call it "our home," not "my home." Ideally, they should not have to negotiate stairs, or step over the side of a bathtub to get into the shower. A walk-in shower, with hand railings inside and out, is a big help. Keep floors uncluttered. A fall can have disastrous results.

Embrace Curiosity
Take this golden opportunity to learn as much as you can about the person you are caring for. You will learn a lot about yourself, as well. Go through photo albums and write down anything the person in your care remembers. Read old letters. Stir up their fondest memories. Maintain contact with their friends. It will widen your view of life and warm your heart, too.

Stress Busters
From yoga and meditation, to support groups, to anti-anxiety medications like Ativan that can be used on an as-needed basis, find what works for you to diffuse the perfectly normal anguish you are bound to feel if you love the person in decline.

There But For The Grace of God Go I
We've all heard this phrase many times. If you're ever unsure about what to do, ask yourself: How would I like to be treated if I were in their place? It will usually answer any questions you may have. And remember, one day you'll be elderly, too.