As parents age, the burden of guilt falls to the kids and neighbors

The Star Tribune doesn’t open up its online stories for comments when they deal with crime or “spot news”, and it’s probably for the best, especially in the horribly sad story of an elderly couple in Richfield.

Amy Parrish, 98, apparently fell down the stairs. Her husband, John, 95, tried to get to her. He fell, too.

And outside their neat cottage, life went on.

She died. He’s in “tough shape”, according to the Star Tribune. Neighbors hadn’t seen them since Memorial Day, and outside the papers were piling up in the driveway. That’s usually a bad sign when the couple inside are in their nineties.

But life went on.

Had the comments section been turned on, neighbor Helen Johnson would likely be an unfair target because she had the honesty to tell the reporter, “I mentioned [the newspapers] to my neighbors. I didn’t want to get involved — you know how that goes.”

She feels pretty bad with a bucketload of guilt right now. “I will feel better about it eventually,” she said, after being told by a chaplain not to beat herself up.

There are plenty of people in the world — especially online — who will help her do that, or judge the family who let their parents stay in the home they shared for so long.

Been there. Doing that. My 96-year-old mother won’t leave the home her father built for her after the war, which she shared with her husband of more than 60 years. Some neighbors, I hear, are aghast that her children would let her stay there at her age, and, indeed, the siblings are split on the question.

But the idea of forcing people out of their comfort in the last years, even if the house might eventually kill them, seems a poor alternative more designed to make us feel better about their living situation than them.

These are questions and scenarios that Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers are facing and, for the most part, they’re on their own trying to figure it out.

The Star Tribune series on young generations taking care of their elderly parents — a likely Pulitzer Prize winner, it seems to me — is documenting the gap between the real life issues that people have, and the ones politicians are more interested in addressing.

Spend some time looking at the picture at the very top of today’s installment because it captures, love, and desperation, and conflict in one image.

It’s the story of Christian Fritzberg, who tried to balance his job with taking care of his 74-year-old mother, who has Parkinson’s.

“I was pulled in two directions,” Fritzberg tells reporter Jackie Crosby. “At the beginning, they said they’d be flexible and would accommodate whatever time I needed. It went quickly to becoming an issue.”

A lot of employers say the right things when faced with employees who are torn between family and career. “Take the time you need.” Easier said than done.

Fritzberg lost his job.

At issue is paid family leave and it divides all the wings of today’s politicians. It wasn’t really Fritzberg’s employer’s job to bear the cost of taking care of his mom. And yet, as our parents live longer and require more sacrifice, the burden can bankrupt people and that’s no better a choice.

Politicians live in a black-and-white world where every issue is right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and there’s nothing to be gained by acknowledging the gray areas of reality in which normal people live.

The comments are open on that story and are worth reading. Everyone’s got a story. Nobody’s got a good answer.

Guilt we’ve got in abundance.

  • Mike Worcester

    Has the mobility of children, who have moved away from their families, contributed to this issue? I think of the four kids in our family, the closest of whom lives a two hour drive from our parents. No longer is is assumed that peoples’ kids will all be nearby (or even on the same street).

    • John O.

      Yes it has. There weren’t any jobs to be had in my hometown and the economy sucked in 1983 when I graduated from the U of M. MSP is our home now.

    • refereemn77

      Yes, it has changed this. And, I don’t see it ending anytime soon. My profession is quite narrow, and I live about 2-1/2 hours from my parents now. If I were to need to find a new job, I’d probably need to move to one of the coasts unless the employer allowed me to work remotely…

  • momkat

    My siblings and I got chastised by a friend of our mother when we moved her to assisted living at age 95. According to the friend, we were doing a terrible disservice to Mom. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

    • Yep

    • refereemn77

      Seriously? Is the friend of your mother going to do the care you can’t, or replace your income so you can do the care? Sometimes, we don’t stop to put ourselves in others shoes (you know, empathy)… If I make it to 95 and I’m not already in a facility, I’ll be happy to go to one.

  • AmyO

    As my Dad’s dementia symptoms increased, and it became increasingly difficult to take care of him at home, my sister and I struggled with balancing my Dad’s wishes (“I never want to leave the house I built and neighborhood I lived in for 50 years, but don’t you dare come in here and try to help me”) with his personal safety and my Mom’s stress level and declining health. It was the most gut wrenching time of our lives. His intense anger towards us as we eventually had to move him still haunts me six months after his death. There are no easy answers to these complicated issues.

  • Gary F

    Friends of my parents, in their late 80’s, living in their home, no children, no relatives in MN, one with Parkinson’s, one with Dementia, and couple of bad knees and a back, finally made the decision to move into assisted living/dementia care. They were determined to stay in their home as long as they could. Many people from all different parts of their lives tried to convince them to get help. She one day just couldn’t do it, swallowed her pride and she got help. I’m so happy, they are more relaxed and happy, and safe. We were always were worried that we would “get one of those phone calls”. We never did. I’ve known these folks my whole life, and with moving my mother from one nursing home to another this year, I was having a hard time dealing with my mom’s situation and the guilt of not helping them out more too. I’m so glad they got help, and its nice to see them more at ease, and safe.

  • wjc

    We should remember these stories as we age, and try to not be too rigid in what we want. Try to think of other people’s needs and feelings rather than just drawing a line in the sand concerning what we will and won’t do.

    • I’ve told our kids we’ll move to Oregon when the time comes.

      • theoacme

        If you’re saying what I think you’re saying…I won’t be able to afford to move anywhere except to a dumpster behind a McDonald’s…

        …the only way I want to go to Oregon again is to see Crater Lake, in person, just once…and I will never get to do that, either…

        • John

          I think Oregon has a law on the books allowing you to end your own life.

      • Al

        …what if you don’t know when the time comes?

        • Then you stay. But when I get the diagnosis… I’m outta here.

          • refereemn77

            I like this idea. I think it’s maddening that we think that fighting through a terminal condition, and the pain that usually comes with it, makes us better somehow.

            I also don’t need to be put in a plot wasting space in the ground. A columbarium or mausoleum for my urn would be enough.

      • boB from WA

        Or you could come to Washington. Just saying Oregon isn’t the only state that’s worth dying to see.

  • If you notice newspapers piling up or some other change in behavior (not showing up for that daily walk, no lights in the evening or lights on all night, etc.), you can call the police and request a “health & welfare check”. It’s easy and effective.

  • Jack

    This is going to continue to be an issue long-term. Realistically often people can’t afford to move to assisted living or the nursing home. Our states are increasingly bearing the costs of the elderly.

    Just yesterday I had this conversation with a friend of mine. Currently looking at my own home and how to get it remodeled to allow us to live there long-term.

  • AL287

    Numerous studies have shown that the elderly do better physically and emotionally when they are provided care in familiar environs. Mom is not going to stop falling because she’s in assisted living or the nursing.

    The only difference between assisted living and nursing home care is in the regulations.

    Nursing homes are regulated by the Federal government, namely Medicare and by state departments of health.

    The regulations for assisted living are spotty at best and vary greatly from state to state. There are no Federal regulations for assisted living.

    Recent news stories have revealed the shortcomings of assisted living facilities and what can happen when you put the responsibility for the safety of an aging loved one in the hands of virtual strangers.

    If your parents, aunt, uncle, etc. do not live in a home where everything is on one level, it is a better investment to make modifications to their home and bring in help than to pay the outrageous prices charged by assisted living corporations.

    Better yet, get one of the new in-law cottages and put Mom and Dad in your back yard where you can keep a watchful eye on them. When Mom and Dad do die, you can use it for guest quarters for when your children and their spouses come home for a visit.

    • refereemn77

      How does having an in-law cottage help with care giving? If you had read the article, the son purchased the house next door for mom, and still he lost his job due to the amount of time the care giving required. Having mom and dad near you doesn’t change the time requirements, and FMLA means lost income.

      And, unless you are independently wealthy, affording an in-law cottage is probably beyond your reach. That’s the real issue here – how do we as a society pay for the care that our elderly loved ones need.

      You can be against assisted living facilities, nursing homes, home care nurses, and all other forms non-family care giving, but that doesn’t solve any problems.

  • refereemn77

    Family leave time is something that Gen X (me) and Millennial’s will probably start demanding. Besides issues with caring for parents as they age, caring for spouses and children when they become very ill can be very challenging. My spouse needed cancer surgery for a very rare form of cancer (1 in 5 million), which was fine, but the hospital acquired pneumonia the put him in the ER and ICU a week after surgery started tp put pressure on my job. A second opinion from Mayo Clinic determined that they surgery didn’t get all of the tumor, which meant treatments in Rochester… I was stressed to the max between that and work.

    • Thinking good thoughts for you and your spouse.

      • refereemn77

        Thanks! He is officially “NED” or No Evidence of Disease now. But, because of the rarity, it’s a quarterly checkup at Mayo.