The Promise

When Anna’s father lay dying, she made him a promise. The promise was that Anna would take care of Mary, her mother, and would never put her in a nursing home. That promise, made in haste—given away without much thought beyond the immediate need to sooth her father’s troubled mind in the last months of his life—would come at a terrific price.

The price would be Anna’s freedom.

“I said ‘Yes, don’t worry about it,’” Anna recalls. “I wanted him to enjoy his final days.”

Anna didn’t think it through, or she might not have given her consent so easily. On the other hand, how many of us put precise plans in place for eventual caregiving? How many of us dare to look at the frightening eventualities—consider what may befall our parents as they face the inevitable decline in strength and spirit in their later years—and rationally make plans?

Anna also knew her father had good reason to be worried about her mom. Mary had been a sheltered child growing up in her native country of Ukraine. Then World War II turned everything upside down. She and her husband endured unspeakable tragedy, losing land, family members, and friends. They survived a marauding case of typhus that decimated the civilian population in their part of Europe during the war. They survived the Germans, then as the war came to a close, they found themselves fleeing the advancing Soviets. They landed in a displaced persons camp in Germany under Allied control after the war, and later emigrated to the United States.

So, yes, they endured, but Mary was never the same after her years of terror. She became a social phobic, who was petrified of strangers and rarely left the house. Her husband paid the bills, did all the shopping and generally protected her from the big, bad world that had so traumatized her. Into this household Anna was born. (Names have been changed for reasons of privacy.)

Whether in reaction to her mother’s timidity or because she was naturally a different sort of person, Anna is completely unlike her mother. As much as her mother is a recluse, Anna is gregarious and adventurous. As a young adult, Anna studied abroad, then traveled widely in Europe and the United States. And loved every minute of it. “My mother and I were two different people,” says Anna. “And frankly I had a very strained relationship with my mom.”

After Anna’s dad passed away, Anna, who lived in Allentown PA, would visit her mother twice a month or so. Mary lived in a secluded lane in the Poconos, about 40 minutes away.

“For the first year after my father died, Mary grieved,” says Anna. “In the second year, she got angry.”

Mary was angry because she was still alive. She believed that couples who loved each other romantically would die very close together.

Mary suffered a minor heart attack during this time. When she recovered, the doctors recommended that she get a pacemaker. So sure was Mary that her time on earth was short, she refused the implant. “Why spend all that money on a pacemaker when I’m going to die anyway?” she explained to her daughter.

In the third year after her husband’s death, Mary started to go downhill. “I noticed she was forgetting things,” says Anna. “She would leave the kettle boiling on the stove. She stopped watering her plants or tending her garden.”

Anna was concerned, but she rationalized that the root of the problem was Mary’s grief. Her mother still seemed perfectly capable of living alone.

Then Mary had an accident. And suddenly that scary future—the far off time when Mary wasn’t going to be able to function on her own—wasn’t the future anymore. The future had arrived.

The actual incident was scary but minor. Mary had locked herself out of her house, couldn’t get in, then, after dark, she remembered that the basement door was unlocked. She came inside, but walked into some exposed pipes. Her face was bruised badly, in large part because she was taking coumadin (a blood thinner) at the time.

As many elderly people do when injured, she waited until the next day to call for help. Anna raced out and took her to the hospital. There, Anna got the bad news that Mary was in the early stages of vascular dementia—possibly caused by the irregular heartbeat that the pacemaker would have corrected.

Mary could no longer live alone. Anna had made a promise, so she packed up her belongings and moved in. And so, in a few weeks Anna’s freewheeling lifestyle came to an end. Ironically, Mary didn’t want her there at first. “I had to tell my mother that I was going through a rough patch and needed a place to stay,” says Anna.

At first, Anna made bargains with herself about her living situation. Or maybe they were more like little white lies. The first was that she’d be able to work part time from her mother’s home in the Poconos. Divorced one year, Anna had recently gone back to school to study business management, and she figured she could find part time work using her new skill in the Pocono region.

That fell through as it became obvious that she really couldn’t leave her mother alone even for half an hour to go shopping. “I was worried about her falling or lighting the stove and setting the house on fire,” says Anna. “One time I came home and she’d gotten stuck in the closet.”

The second bargain was that she’d stick it out for a year or two, and then when the dementia progressed to the point that her mother no longer knew where she was, she’d put her in a nursing home after all.

Then, a strange thing started to happen. Anna began actually to like her mother—the same territorial, dictatorial creature, wracked with fear of the unknown, who had driven her crazy growing up. The two spent hours talking about the past, and Anna slowly began to understand where her mother’s phobias had come from.

Five years later, Anna is still living with her mother, and she knows she’ll stay with her until the end. She’s gained something from the experience she never expected to gain: A kind of peace. “I’ve been able to see the trauma she’s suffered that made her the way she is,” says Anna. “I’ve learned to respect her. I realize now that her stubbornness is what helped her survive.”

It doesn’t hurt that her mother has mellowed. “She will say to me, ‘I like having you here,’ and even, ‘I love you,’” says Anna with wonder. These are words that she had never heard from her mother before.

Anna is not financially secure, and she doesn’t know quite what the future will bring. But in giving herself to her mother—at first just honoring a promise, then later making a commitment from her heart—she has gained something priceless.

Until next Monday,

If you’d like to share your story about caregiving, write to me at steveslon@beclose.com

–Steve Slon

Steve Slon is a writer specializing in health and aging. He is the former editor of AARP The Magazine.

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