Much that is written about aging parents describes the stresses, the challenges and the headaches that come with providing care. My story shows a different side—a more positive side—of sharing those last years together.
My husband Norman and I were both raised with the model of bringing elderly family into the home. My mother cared for her parents, and Norman's grandmother lived with his family for ten years. Naturally, I figured, our parents would some day move in with us.
After my father died, my mother lived on her own for a decade, keeping up her house and yard, and trying to stay on top of her burgeoning health problems. Her decline was a slow one, but I could see subtle changes.
She would call one of us in a panic, saying she was having trouble eating, when she was really having trouble remembering directions to the grocery store. She couldn't remember which medication to take. Her vision also deteriorated, and her back problems worsened.
We lived several hours away from one another at that point and kept in touch through daily phone calls and frequent visits. During one stay, my mother noticed that the home behind ours was for sale. Her decision to purchase it was a good one; she lived there for five years. Nearly every night, Norman would bring her over for dinner, and we regularly helped with her household chores. But as her daily care became more and more difficult, she knew it was time for a change.
While we were remodeling our kitchen, my mother asked if she could come live with us. So we added to the remodel, enlarging a bedroom and bathroom to fit her needs. Since her parents had lived into their 90s, we expected the same—and we wanted her comfortable.
What a blessing it was to have her with us! That's not to say there wasn't work. She needed help with everything from bathing to dressing to going to the bathroom. For some reason, instead of helping herself to food, my mother preferred that Norman or I did this for her, quickly earning her the adoring nickname "The Queen."
Looking back, I know Norman and I could have gotten short with her, succumbed to anger or worried about the future. But we made an effort to laugh as much as possible, see the humor in things and always communicate openly.
I certainly wasn't raised with this kind of honest communication, but I knew it was necessary to sustain a healthy environment. I used to say, "Everybody do the best they can, and we'll forgive the rest." Together, we learned about setting boundaries, not holding grudges and being up front with one another.
Yes, it was difficult to watch her health decline. And yes, it was sometimes a trying experience. My mother, for example, would often ask the same questions over and over again. But I quickly learned that getting irritated and scolding her didn't do any good. When she complimented me on the "new" dress I wore every Sunday to church, I would simply respond, "I'm so glad you like it!"
I knew she wasn't choosing to forget, and I knew aging was a part of life. So I accepted her absentmindedness and made every effort to treat her gently—even when I didn't feel like it.
My mother's insurance enabled us to get help with her routine care on weekdays. This allowed my husband and me to carve out time for each other. We realized that our relationship had to be the priority.
Speaking of Norman, he was the biggest help, and I couldn't have done it without him. When we married, we agreed we would love each other's parents as our own—and that agreement stuck.
We both knew that the time with my mother was finite—just like the time we spent raising our children. Neither of us wanted those lingering "if only" thoughts when our parents passed away: If only we would've given our parents more time, more love, more attention. Caring for my mother certainly made our lives busier and more complicated. But we wouldn't have done it any other way.
After living with us for two years, mom caught a cold and her body started to wear out. The last day of her life, our family was singing to her from a hymnal, and we could see her mouth moving along with the words. She died surrounded by her loved ones, and we have all the confidence that she continued her song in heaven.
Caring for my mother wasn't always easy. But when she died, I had no regrets. Helping her was a privilege, and I'm so thankful that she was happy while she lived and at peace when she died.