Confessions of a Worried Daughter

“How easily we forget that God designed aging! … Once you truly acknowledge that aging is part of God’s plan, you can begin to embrace it as a divine gift.”

—Missy Buchanan, Aging Faithfully

I’m trying to view aging positively, but reality is hitting hard, breathing down my neck, whispering and sometimes shouting, “Your dad is in decline. It’s time to make some decisions now—before his physical decline becomes a full-blown crisis.”

You’ve probably heard the statistics. The fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population is over 85. According to a 2011 study, the number of Americans who provide care for their aging parents has tripled since 1994. Caregiving has become one of the major concerns of our time, with the number of senior baby boomers rising exponentially and the increased longevity of our elderly population.

  • How do we care for our elderly parents while treating them with dignity and allowing them to have a say in their future?
  • How do we step in when necessary and make tough decisions, becoming almost like parents to our own parents?
  •  How do we manage this transition without losing our sanity?

I’ve been pondering these questions for some time as I think about my 90-year-old dad. Alas, I cannot come up with any simple solutions.

My dad is married, lives 5 hours away from me, and has a wife who suffers from dementia and lives in a nursing home. My stepmother is 94.

As an only child, I feel responsible for my dad’s well-being and long to be closer to him so I can check on him more often. He clings to his independence quite fiercely, still driving and only recently having acquiesced to using a cane. He lives alone in his home.

My dad with me in the Agape Garden of The Upper Room, summer 2009

Over the past decade, we’ve had many conversations about his future. At one point he was ready to move to Nashville so he could be closer to me. But he feels the pull of honoring his marriage vows.

We’ve had several health scares since Dad had quadruple bypass surgery 9 years ago. Each time he’s had surgery, I have taken time off work and traveled to North Carolina to be with him during his hospitalization and to help for a few days afterward. The last time he had general anesthesia, things did not go well, and I had to make temporary arrangements for home health care.

I am blessed and grateful that my stepsister, who lives next door to Daddy, checks in on him daily. Though she has willingly dressed wounds when I’ve had to resume my normal life in Nashville, I realize this is becoming a heavy burden for her.

I have dealt with this increasingly stressful (and guilt-inducing) situation by worrying about it constantly or psychologically distancing myself, neither of which has been a helpful coping mechanism or altered the reality we face.

So many questions plague me. Do I move Daddy to Nashville, and if so, how do I do this without strong-arming him? Does he need to move to assisted living in the facility where my stepmother resides? Would providing in-home care be a better alternative?

As I mentioned above, my dad and I have talked around these issues. Our discussions have been brief (usually due to being in the midst of a crisis) and leave me feeling unsettled.

The last time I went to be with him during and after minor surgery, I had prepared myself to address the future head-on. But somehow, after watching him sign the consent forms for surgery and sedation and being reminded that he shouldn’t make any major decisions that day, I just couldn’t in good conscience bring up the issue of “What do we do now?” Meaning, of course, what plans do we need to make to address the reality in which we find ourselves? As much as I wish, things will not just get better if we do nothing.

Me and my dad, Christmas 2011

In my head I know that I “should” not worry. But my heart tells me otherwise.

I have prayed and asked God to help me discern the best course of action. I have talked to friends in similar situations. And of course, as I always do, I have sought out books for advice and information.

One book that has been especially helpful in this journey is A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents—And Ourselves by Jane Gross (Vintage Books, 2011). I was attracted to the book because Jane Gross is a New York Times journalist and an expert on elder care. She speaks from the experience of finding care for her 85-year-old mother, who was already in assisted living but suddenly was forced by a health crisis to seek alternative arrangements. Gross offers tips for working with siblings to find the best care options for elderly parents, dealing with the maze of Medicaid and Medicare, addressing financial concerns, understanding adult children’s needs and practicing self-care as we care for our parents, and much more.

As I’ve prayed, I have meditated on the following scriptures and readings:

Even before a word is on my tongue,

O LORD, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.”

—Psalm 139: 1-2, 4-5 (NRSV)

“Therefore, I [Jesus] say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. … Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? … Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

—Matthew 6:25-27, 34 (CEB)

“Gracious God, I thank you for the answered prayers in my life, especially …

_________________________________________. Quiet the noises in my soul and let me hear you. Be near to me in this journey. Amen.”

—Missy Buchanan, Aging Faithfully: 28 Days of Prayer

“Life is like a good book. There are countless times when we don’t have the foggiest understanding abut what’s happening. We puzzle over how the characters, the plot, themes, and episodes fit into the story. We read on, trusting that everything will make sense in the end. We believe somehow times of fear, bewilderment, and confusion will change to wonder, grace and revelation when we reach the concluding words. In the meantime, we read on. We simply show up, walk humbly with our God, and anticipate the next chapter of our life’s story.”

—Nell Noonan, Not Alone: Encouragement for Caregivers

In the meantime, I wait and pray for wisdom—sometimes not too patiently.

I also pray for those of you who provide daily care for a loved one and for those who work in senior care facilities. Your job is not easy.

I’ve had glimpses of what it takes to be a full-time caregiver. May God bless you in your caregiving journey.

May you find peace and strength, and may you feel the truth of Galatians 6:9 (CEB): “Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up.”

Recommended Reading

Missy Buchanan, Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults (Upper Room Books, 2008). While this book is written primarily for elderly adults who are in physical or mental decline, it gives adult children understanding of the emotions and daily challenges their parents are experiencing.

Trevor Hudson, The Serenity Prayer: A Simple Prayer to Enrich Your Life (Upper Room Books, 2012). A good resource to help caregivers and others accept the situation they are in, relinquish their burdens to God, and find peace even in the midst of chaos.

Nell E. Noonan, Not Alone: Encouragement for Caregivers (Upper Room Books, 2009). Written by an author who was thrust into the situation of becoming caregiver for her husband, this book of 150 devotions is Bible-based, uplifting and yet realistic about the burdens of caregivers, plus it offers inspirational stories and prayers. I gave this book to a friend caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s; she reports that she read it over and over, underlining and highlighting portions of it, and this book got her through many a tough day.

Nell E. Noonan, The Struggles of Caregiving: 28 Days of Prayer (Upper Room Books, 2011). Another book by Noonan that helps caregivers cope with their frustration, questions about faith, guilt, and struggles.

This blog was originally written for Upper Room Books and posted on their website in July 2012 (in two parts).

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The Sacredness of Another’s Story

Jesus’ story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 has always been a powerful one for me. I know at least one person whose  life turned around from a path of self-destruction after he heard a sermon on this scripture text.

On Saturday morning of Writer’s Corner at West End United Methodist Church, the conference participants were beginning to feel a little more at home with one another, even though several of us came to the conference not knowing anyone else there. Our workshop leader, author Joy Jordan-Lake, had led us through a couple of writing exercises.

Then she asked us to listen to three stories from the Gospel of Luke and decide which one we related to the most: Jesus’ parable of the shepherd searching for a lost sheep, his parable of the woman who lost a coin and swept her house looking for it, and the parable of the prodigal son (or as some call this story, the parable of the loving father), who asked his father for his inheritance, left home and squandered the inheritance, but finally came to his senses and decided to return home, asking his father if he would take him on as a hired hand (you’ll have to read Luke 15 for the father’s response, if you’re unfamiliar with this story).

Here was our next assignment after hearing the scripture read: Imagine yourself in the story. What character are you? Who are the other characters? (They can be different genders from the one in the story.) What sounds do you hear, what smells or other senses do you experience? What other details would you add to the story?

I chose the parable of the prodigal son because I could relate to it from some experiences in our family life. I started out writing, “There was a mother who had a son and a daughter.” Then I thought, “No, this story involved our whole family, so I crossed out ‘a mother’ and put ‘two parents.’ ” I went on to write part of a story that happened in our family a few years ago as our son, then in high school, experimented with drugs and got expelled from school. I was planning to parallel our daughter’s experience with that of the elder brother in the prodigal son story, who stays at home and doesn’t cause any trouble. But time for this writing exercise expired, and Joy asked us to share our stories with the people sitting at our table. It turns out that we had just the right number of people at our table to share intimately–three.

One woman had already shared some very personal responses in a previous exercise, in response to the writing prompts “My mother never . . .” and “My father never. . .” She had trouble with this exercise, I suspect because she had already talked about  intimate matters.

So I began reading my story and, in the sharing, burst into tears. This is not a common occurrence for me, and I usually feel quite embarrassed to show emotions in public. However, in this setting, it felt just fine, probably because the other woman had set the stage by sharing those private memories from her childhood.

The next thing that happened gave me goose bumps. The woman next to me, a retired physician who had already told me some of her life story (and it involved much difficulty), started telling her story. She had not written it down because she just sat there thinking about it and the prodigal son story, and all she could do was cry.

She talked about her younger brother, a brilliant high school student who had gone to Dartmouth and encountered the academic challenges and reality of being surrounded by other students just as bright as he–and then suffered a psychotic breakdown.

Over the next several years, as his sister graduated from an Ivy League school and went on to medical school, the young man tried to put his life back together. He worked at various jobs and attended college, but he was unclear about what path to pursue. He became  discouraged at how long it was taking him to complete college.

In the meantime, his parents divorced. He spiraled into depression and went to each of his family members for help. His father, who had remarried,  told him he he was not welcome at his  home. His mother was much more accepting, reaching out to him and trying to help him. But nothing seemed to work.

Finally, in desperation, he went to his sister, who was by then married and had a three-year-old son, as well as a demanding full-time job as a physician. She allowed him to come stay with her family for a week, but told him that he would need to leave after that. After he’d been with them for a week, she and her husband took him to the YMCA (which at that time provided housing for people in need) and left him there.

As our new friend was telling her story, she reflected on how her father had been unlike the father in the prodigal son story, and how  her mother had acted like the loving father. She then wept as she said, “That was the last time I saw my brother. Not long after that he committed suicide. I felt so awful, remembering my last contact with him and how I really hadn’t helped him at all.”

By this time everyone at our table was crying, including Joy Jordan-Lake, the guest author. I don’t remember what we said–we tried to come up with consoling thoughts, but there’s just not much you can say in the face of such sadness, even 30 years after the fact.

The woman who had shared her painful story seemed relieved.

I thought about what sacred moments we had just experienced. To hear another person’s story is indeed an honor–that person has entrusted us with part of himself or herself. It’s also a catharsis for the storyteller. I was reminded of a quotation I had read in Trevor Hudson’s book A Mile in My Shoes: Cultivating Compassion: “Everyone sits beside his or her own pool of tears.”

I pray that I will always pay attention to other people’s stories and not be so consumed with reflecting on my own story that I miss such holy moments.