Right now I am staying in a small town, Faribault, MN, seeing my 95-year-old Grandma Wanda.
Wanda is a German farm woman who raised 5 children, 20 grandchildren and 40+ great grandchildren. My grandmother’s five adult kids are trying to make decisions about her care for this final stage of life.
Wanda’s daughters are trying to decide where Wanda should go live because the nursing home she was placed in last month failed to adequately take care of her. The nursing home gave her the wrong medications, she fell 6 times in two weeks, and they misdiagnosed her with dementia because she was on too many opiates—what the heck?!
This caretaking dilemma is shared by so many in this country. I have heard that our family experience isn’t unusual. You think that when you place someone in a nursing home, they will get nursed. However, in many nursing homes there is just too little staff-to-patient ratio. The nurses are booking it and doing the best they can. However, they just can’t do what they are not set up to be able to do. People fall through the cracks, understandably.
The nursing home setup works well for some, but it didn’t work for my grandmother. She needs help getting around, needs help eating, and needs encouragement to do safe exercise. For us, nursing home care was a bust.
Now Wanda’s adult children are figuring out where she should go. She needs to live with someone. Two sisters have stepped up to take her, one down South and one up in Minnesota. Tension is in the air about who knows best and what should be done. There have been some arguments and uncomfortable confrontations about ridiculous things—like who called who and when. This tension is understandable.
Usually, when family members are fighting about stupid things repeatedly, there are deeper issues going on. What this underlying tension is really about is fear, love, sibling roles, tensions about who did what in the past, and who knows what is best, etc. These fears and hurts are burbling to the surface. Many families experience old stuff when there is a family crisis or when expectations for caregiving are trying to be ironed out.
It all reminded me of the movie I saw last week titled Marvin’s Room. It is a movie about the challenges of taking care of aging parents, one that I recommend if you haven’t already seen it. Diane Keaton stars in this movie as the mousy 50-year-old sister who becomes a spinster while taking care of her aging parents in their retirement home in Florida.
Her sister, played by Meryl Streep, comes to visit with her teenage kids. You can tell she is annoyed and disgusted with the whole thing. As a single mom who has just finished beauty school, her kids growing up and out, she thinks she’s finally reached a time when her life can be about her. Her character is NOT excited about taking over the caretaking duties in any way shape or form. However, her sister is dying of cancer and somebody needs to step up. Meryl is six seconds from busting out of all the responsibility and duty throughout the movie. You can tell she thinks her sister “giving her life away” to care for her elderly parents as they disintegrate into death is a mistake.
Family Caregiving Across the U.S.A.
One second you have a life almost free from the duties of caregiving. Then you turn the corner and the aging parent life stage is upon you. Here are some interesting facts from the Family Caregiving Alliance:
- Estimates of the percentage of family or informal caregivers who are women range from 59% to 75%.6, 7
- The average caregiver is age 46, female, married and working outside the home earning an annual income of $35,000.8
- Although men also provide assistance, female caregivers may spend as much as 50% more time providing care than male caregivers.9
Interestingly, during the movie, the character played by Diane tells her sister that she has been so privileged and blessed to do her caregiving. In a heartfelt moment that I PROMISE will put you in tears, she tells her sister that it has has been an incredible honor to show love for her family in this way. Her sister mistakes this as her saying she is grateful to be loved by others. “No, ” she says. She explains that she has been so grateful and privileged to love them. She is happy with her life choice and not embittered or regretful in the slightest. She has loved others deeply, and for her, this is a life richly lived—enough.
From Conflict to Peace: A Beautiful Moment of Connection
Despite all the tension present throughout my visit, the tension dissipated for a while. All three daughters sat with Grandma. They laughed together when she made wisecracks about the nursing home care she had received. My grandmother proved that without being overmedicated, she was still as spry and quick witted as she was before the trauma.
Wanda wanted to sing. She sang old hymns. Her voice cracked, but she sang them fiercely loud with depth and joy. Her daughters joined her, and they laughed and smiled.
I smiled too, remembering standing next to my grandmother as a little girl in the small German church pews, singing those hymns. I would look around to see if anyone heard her way off-pitch singing. I was young and a little embarrassed by her crazed staccato that rose so highly above everyone else’s.
As a little girl, I was too young to appreciate the loveliness of Grandma’s fierce singing commitment to her Higher Power. She was normally a feminine and fashion-focused grandma who never walked outside the lines of social decorum. When she sang those hymns, though, she sang them loudly with a crackly voice, and she wasn’t self conscious at all.
The sisters and Grandma sang hymns together. Then they talked patiently about taking Grandma to live somewhere different. No one completely agreed, and no one completely disagreed. There was a peaceful connection in the room.
The peace of that sweet moment may not last. The arguments may start up again. Resentments could get hurled. However, I love what Diane’s character said in the movie about it all just being an honor to love each other. No matter what comes. Underneath it all, the love and connection is there, and we can try and be grateful for the ability to be present in our imperfect loving of others.
From conflict to peace: Despite the disagreements, tension and conflict, love and connectedness will bring people together. We can be grateful for the honor of loving one another, especially in times of need, when things are hard.
Have you been in the middle of caregiver conflict?