What Caring for Mom is Teaching Me about Life

This is MJ (aka Em Jay).  I look up to her for a lot of reasons but epically for her integrity.  She's a friend who I've been lucky enough to work with. She's the kind of person I love being around- someone who gets stuff done, is smart in ways that I'm not, experienced but humble, professional yet filled with humor, and will address hard stuff when needed. She says wise things. And also laughs at herself when life gets the best of her.  She's also, by far, the most efficient person I know.  I've been asking smart women to tell me about some of their life experience.  (You can read about my intentions here).  I asked MJ to write about what it's like to care for her aging mother.

In our family, I got the “caretaking” gene. Since I was a preteen, I knew that I would be the one among my siblings to care for mom at some point in the distant future. So when mom moved in with us 5 years ago, it wasn’t completely unexpected. We have it a bit easier than some because even with dementia, my 93-year old mom can actually be alone for 3-4 hour stretches, which is a good thing since I have a full-time job. She’s perfectly content to color, do word find puzzles, glance at the television from time to time, or take a nap on the sofa. But she needs me to help her get showered and dressed, to make sure she gets her pills on time, to prepare her meals, etc.

Much like an expectant parent, you can anticipate how things will be, but you really don’t find out until you’re actually in the midst of it. I’m glad I can spend my mom’s final years with her, but I admit it can be a struggle at times and I’m learning a lot…

About Aging

Ok, let me just say it. It sucks. Memory loss, aches and pains, slowing down, and then slowing down even more, dependence on others for almost everything, and what seems like a million medications. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at my mom and wondered how I will handle being in her position some day. It’s more than a little scary to tell the truth. It’s at times like these that I remind myself how I want to be treated. I want to be treated with respect, dignity, and love. I’ve found that caring for mom has made me more empathetic towards older people everywhere I go, and for the people I see taking care of them.

About Patience

When you've answered the same question for the 100th time in just as many minutes, it wears on your patience. I was definitely NOT gifted with patience…but I remind myself that God has been so patient with me, and I am slowly learning to be more patient. It’s not easy, I often fail, but it’s a process…

About Humor
Having a sense of humor is probably the most important part of caretaking. When my mom asks me how old she is for the millionth time, I just tell her about her younger brother, Methuselah. And when she is so tired she can barely let me get her pajamas on, I say, “Off to bed with you and I don’t want to hear any arguments.” I like the idea that she is going to sleep with a smile on her face. But some of the best humor comes out of some of the stuff my mom says…she’s actually quite funny. (But I’m saving that material for my upcoming book.)

About Friendship

This is one of the hardest parts for me. I miss my friends. I miss meeting for dinner or drinks. I miss talking on the phone and catching up, I miss shopping… lunch with friends and coworkers… girlfriend stuff. But I've learned to make time where I can and to get really creative with my time. When you are caring for others, you need to look after yourself, and to replenish your soul, and for me that is time with friends.

About Family

Mike & Gram Selfie
Taking care of an elderly parent is hard on a family. It changes the dynamic, and forces you to create a new dynamic. My mom needs for things to be routine. It helps her to feel secure. I don’t understand the psychology behind it, but I’ve read enough and experienced enough to know that this is absolute truth. When things get off-kilter at home, her behavior changes. When her behavior changes, everything becomes more difficult for the rest of the family. So we strive for routine.

Mom has forgotten most of the last 50 years and at times is surprised that we have a “color” television. So my son Mike will have some fun with her, showing her how you can take a photo on a smartphone and immediately send it to family in Minnesota. Or, he will pull up videos of his band playing on the computer, and show them to her on the big screen television…leaving her wondering how he got on the television. My niece calls modern day electronics “weapons of mass confusion” for people like my mom. That’s true, but mom is amazed (over and over again) and all this “new” stuff. I was watching a video on my iPad the other day and she exclaimed, “Your book talks to you!?”

For the most part, Mike handles the fun part, but he sees the rest of it. Maybe he is learning some things for the future. He's an only child so gene or not, he drew the caretaking stick.

About My Husband
Dane & His Supercool Mom-in-Law
I am married to a good man. While I get mom up and taken care of in the morning, and come home each day to have lunch with her—he comes home from work early each day and takes care of her needs. He gets her tea, he jokes with her, and he answers the questions that have been rolling around in her mind all afternoon. He helps here get up from her chair each evening for dinner, and sometimes dances with her on the way to the kitchen. He is sweet, kind and abounding in patience with his mother-in-law. He’s a keeper. 

About Myself

Like anyone in a similar situation, I struggle. I struggle with impatience, and then with the accompanying guilt.  I have bad days, where I revert to behavior that is more adolescent than 50-something. This usually happens when my soul is depleted (see above). But the good days outnumber the bad, and I have supportive family and friends. I’m a planner, a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done kind of person, a multi-tasker….I admit, a Martha. But sometimes I need to be a Mary. It’s hard but I’m learning…

About God

A close friend once advised, “It’s time to go to a quiet place and cling to the Vine.” I try to remember this. I believe that these moments are here for exactly that reason–to point me back to God. Because it is there that I find forgiveness, it is there that I find peace, and it is there that I find complete and total acceptance. If I spend more time there, I will be equipped to be the daughter and caretaker that my mom deserves. And that’s what I want to be.

Reading back over what I wrote, it feels all over the place.
Because that’s how it is.
Struggles, laughter, difficulties and blessings.
That’s what it’s like to be a caretaker.
It covers a whole spectrum of emotions and moves from one to the other pretty quickly.
So I just hang on.
I love my mom.


Anonymous | April 6, 2015 at 7:41 PM

Thanks MJ for showing us how... and your humble and gentle spirit in it all! So proud of you...

Anonymous | April 6, 2015 at 9:41 PM

You're my hero. I only hope I can have the same patience, tenderness and humor when it's my turn to be blessed with those special, hair-pulling, wrinkle creating, tender moments with my parents. Thank you for sharing your heart.

nancy | April 7, 2015 at 7:56 AM

Thanks, MJ, for sharing your journey and your learnings. I pray that as you honor your mom each day you sense God's smile.

Jackie Rose | April 7, 2015 at 7:56 PM

Nicely said.

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