A Daughter Among Daughters Reaps Scorn – Suellen’s Story

September 30, 2009

by Ellen Brandt. Ph.D.

When her elderly parents became ill, she gave up her job, her security, and her comfortable middle-class existence. If something isn’t done soon, she says, Baby Boomers will become the New Poor.

Many Boomers are devoted to their aged parents. But my friend Suellen stands out as a model of filial dedication. Five years ago, when her Dad became too sick from Alzheimer’s disease for her mother to cope alone, Suellen quit her full-time accounting job and moved into her parents’ apartment.

“Dad was lucid enough to be adamant about not leaving home,” she tells me. “And Mom absolutely refused to shut him away from her. Unfortunately, she was getting progressively more frail, too.”

While Suellen, who is in her mid-50s and single, was not only happy but proud to put her life on hold to make her parents’ lives better, from Day One, she heard from a variety of busybodies who loudly disagreed with her decision. Distant relatives, people in the neighborhood, and “friends” of all shapes and forms chided her for a decision they felt was “unrealistic” and “destructive of her life.”

“The general message was that in the United States, the proper way to handle this kind of situation would be to put your Dad in a nursing home, tell your Mom to learn to live with it, and go back to earning as much money as you can to pay for it,” Suellen says. “Some people said I should bite the bullet and take two or three jobs, if necessary, which would have meant I never saw my parents at all.”

She stuck to her guns and kept her family together, losing emotional support from the naysayers in the process. When her Dad died two years ago, even some of his closest relatives refused to visit Suellen and her Mom when they were “sitting Shiva,” the Jewish custom of mourning at home. “Yes, it was pretty shocking,” she says, in what sounds like a big understatement.

Suellen’s stubbornness – and courage – are characteristic of this feisty Brooklyn girl, whose compassion and intelligence are apparent in every word she utters. As an only child, she was the apple of her parents’ eye. “Of course, I wanted to return their love and caring when they were the ones in need.

“In nearly every other country in the world,” she goes on, “sons and daughters are expected to take in and lovingly care for aged parents who become sick or helpless. That’s what you do. And it benefits all involved – the parents, the children, any grandchildren in the household. Only in America are we actively encouraged to give Mom and Dad the heave-ho.”

Attracted to the Tropics

Over the past decade or so – even before her parents’ health crises – Suellen became attracted to the idea of joining the growing community of Boomer ex-patriates in the Caribbean and Latin America. This reverse emigration is occurring, she believes, because in many cases, it is much cheaper to live abroad, while the intangible “quality of life” may actually be more appealing abroad than on the Mainland.

When her Dad became seriously frail, she made a trip to Panama – a popular ex-pat haven – and tried to persuade her parents to relocate with her there. “My mother was reluctant,” she explains. “She thought the environment would simply be too foreign. But lately, she’s changed her mind, telling me, ‘You know, Sue, maybe we should have done it.’ “

Back home in Brooklyn, Suellen and her mother, a former secretary – her Dad owned a limousine service – are struggling to survive. For one thing, they could get evicted. “My parents were renters, because they loved their classic Brooklyn building. With recent inflation and a limited income, though, it’s tough keeping up.”

There are also problems with utilities. The electric company, for example, touts its “senior discount” to all and sundry. But they won’t allow Suellen’s mid-80′s mother to have one, because her monthly Social Security check is too high. “It’s under $1400. But to them, it’s a king’s ransom,” she quips. “These so-called authorities are living in La-La-Land. They don’t understand that there are all sorts of health and other very basic expenses that the standard programs just don’t cover. My Mom has to visit some kind of health practitioner nearly every week, for instance. Just the transportation to and fro is a burden.”

Suellen herself can no longer afford private health insurance, and she is too young to be eligible for government programs. A long-term breast cancer survivor, she should be going in for regular check-ups but hasn’t been able to do so for over a year.

A while ago, she applied to a religious-based charity which was widely touted as helping out those who were “falling through the cracks” in terms of healthcare protection. “It was a humiliating experience,” she reports. “The representative they sent to visit us commented on my Mom’s ‘high’ Social Security income, as well as the general attractiveness of our apartment and our dress. Then she demanded to know what we were eating, as if we must clearly be squandering our meager income on lobster, caviar, and champagne.”

Needless to say, the charity turned them down.

We’re Here, We’re Angry, We’re Compassionate

Suellen is outraged at what she calls a “Culture of Meanness” permeating the US right now. “Income disparity is becoming too striking to be ignored much longer,” she feels. “There are the few who are obscenely wealthy and the many who are struggling to make ends meet – a large proportion of whom are Boomers.”

Our generation, she believes, has to acknowledge that if we do not unite and act together, we could be in big trouble just up the road. “My family’s story is anything but atypical,” she says. “What happened to me could happen to nearly any Boomer with elderly parents. One day, you’re comfortably middle-class. The next day, you’re part of the New Poor.”

Although a lifelong Democrat, Suellen is so far unimpressed with either major party’s approach to what could be a coming healthcare crisis for elderly Americans and those who take care of them. “Instead of rabid partisanship, we need honest discussion and compromise on this issue,” she believes. “And we have to consider not just the situation today, but also the situation twenty years from now, when Boomers themselves will be elderly.”

Suellen finds herself moving more and more towards the center of the political spectrum today, where she believes the majority of Baby Boomers now are. “Very few Boomers are on the fringes,” she says. “We are Centrist Republicans, Centrist Democrats, or Centrist Independents – but they key word is Centrist.”

She’s also disturbed and concerned by the ongoing propaganda campaign which seeks to brand the Boomer generation as a whole as inward-looking and selfish. “I think the exact opposite is true,” she says. “There are exceptions, of course, but most Boomers are concerned, compassionate, and caring. Look at our record on civil rights, women’s rights, volunteerism – or pure political activism.

“In fact, Boomers have possibly cared too much about righting every wrong in the country except those wrongs directed at us. It’s high time we demanded some reciprocal compassion towards our own generation.”

What Do You Think?

Have you had to decide whether or not to place a frail, elderly parent in a nursing home or assisted-living facility? Tell us your story.

What do you think of Suellen’s decision to put her career on hold caring for her parents?

Do you agree that most other countries in the world respect and revere the elderly more than we do in the US?

Are government agencies and charities all wrong when they evaluate which elderly people need help and which don’t?

Do you agree with Suellen that those of different political opinions need to compromise to ward off a healthcare crisis caring for our aged population?

Are Boomers not only the Angriest Generation right now, but possibly also the Most Compassionate?

For the Introduction to Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation, please go to: http://wp.me/pxD3J-3

For Ellen’s take on activities for the elderly, Summer Camp for Seniors: http://wp.me/pycK6-t

For Ellen’s idea of a University for Elders: http://wp.me/pycK6-v

For “Recession? What Recession? Not in the Senior Services Sector,” go to: http://wp.me/pycK6-p

12 Responses to “A Daughter Among Daughters Reaps Scorn – Suellen’s Story”

  1. stephanie Says:

    My husband and I are Boomers who planned for a time when our parents might reach a point they would no longer be able to care for themselves. We purchased a property that would accommodate our family and our elderly parents if the need arose. The need did arise.

    When the need arose, first my husband’s parents came to live with us, and we cared for them until they passed away. We sandwiched these responsibilities with caring for our three children, who were in high school.

    The experience taught our children that this is what families do for their elderly members. It was hard at times, but we all grew and learned a great deal from the experiece. It was the right thing to do.

    My husband and I have also planned financially for a time when we might not be able to care for ourselves – hopefully relieving our children of the financial burdens that Suellen experienced.

    Although we have taught our children that caring for our elderly family members is an important principle, we cannot assume that should the need arise the life circumstances of our children at that time will permit them to do as we did.

  2. Thom Sudol Says:

    The downturn in the economy has made self-sustenance a difficult proposition these days; I’ve not even had time to think about retirement.

    When thinking of survival as we are now, it becomes even more difficult to think about one’s parents and what might be needed to care for them.

    Suellen is to be commended for what she’s done to care for her parents, especially because of the sacrifice involved.

    And that to me is the key word: sacrifice. Boomers have had it well, up to this point. Boomers have also been quite generous in their support of charitable organizations; but that’s because they have had the means.

    Real sacrifice is something unknown to most. Sacrifice has likely meant doing away with two or three lattes a week to help save for a nice vacation.

    People are afraid of real sacrifice, of real deep commitment to something outside themselves or to someone other than themselves.

    Is that attitude reflective of selfishness? Perhaps, but it seems to me that fear is the over-riding emotion here.

    Thom

  3. Ann Blanchard Says:

    I am single like Suellen and 59 years old. I left my corporate job almost three years ago to both take care of my parents and to start my own business. With my dad’s lung cancer (he’s 92) and my mom’s age issues (she’s soon to be 90) I don’t feel as if I could return to the corporate workforce if I wanted to.

    Friday I spent 4 hours with my dad, taking him to a surgeon for a review of a tumor. Today I spent four hours with him when he fell on his way to the bathroom. Monday I’ll spend virtually all day with him as he gets surgery to remove the tumor. These unexpected and/or time-consuming events are a very regular part of my life now and wouldn’t mesh with the schedules of corporate life.

    I’ve already tapped into my own retirement savings to be able to continue to support myself while I am a caregiver to my folks. I will worry about my own retirement once my folks are gone. It’s too scary to face during this already stressful time.

  4. Ira Sabran Says:

    From my own seven years of experience managing my Dad (who suffers from Parkinson’s and deimentia) I wholeheartedly empathize with this woman’s plight. As an only child, working through the labyrinth of health care providers, assisted-living and nursing homes, Medicare and Medicaid bureaucracy, IRS filings, legal matters, medications, etc., while trying to manage a career, spouse and kid(s) is nothing short of a nerve-racking high wire act.

    Frustration, stress, anxiety and exhaustion become part of your emotional repertoire, not to mention the collateral impact on other immediate family members. Caring for your parents is a career in itself!

    A key piece of advice I would strongly emphasize: Those with aging parents who have not had this experience will be way ahead of the game if they collaboratively with their parent(s) plan for the inevitable well in advance.

    Once their health starts to fail, it becomes very difficult to plan effectively and to make crucial decisions. IMO, two key actions must be taken sooner than later:

    First: work with an elder law attorney to settle these 5 matters: the living will, health care proxy, power of attorney, last will and testament, and an appropriate trust to protect your parent’s assets. There is no way to dress this up. . . this is difficult stuff, but the longer you wait, the more difficult and expensive it will become.

    Second: work with an elder health care consultant to make sure all of the Medicare and Medicaid applications are managed correctly and orchestrated in a well-thought-out and timely manner.

    Taking these actions now, before they are actually needed, will not stop the inevitable, but it will significantly mitigate the impact on you and your family.

    Ira

  5. Martha Trowbridge Says:

    I am deeply touched by this article, and the thoughtful responses. Thank you, Ellen, for posting it.

    A dear friend just completed nine years of home care for both ailing parents, and is now 60 years old. Throughout those years, we had near-daily contact, and I witnessed her struggles, frustrations and oft-times emotional agonies.

    My own mother died six years ago, when I was 49; my husband and I provided medical care for her for about a year.

    One point I want to make is that of ‘spiritual capital’. We who serve are blessed in our service, especially when times are trying. We come to know love’s depth and breadth; we come to exquisite attunement with love’s astonishing power. Caring for our aging parents not only strengthens our bond with them, it offers us unique spiritual growth opportunities. Wondrous positive energy is created, when we commit to acts of love.

    Yes, the financial aspects of such service are difficult, and yes, we often do ‘trade off’ financial security in exchange for the opportunity to serve our aging parents.

    And consider this: there is breathtaking beauty in love that corrects earlier deficits and injuries. The friend I cited above was, as a child, not kindly treated by her parents. Like many of us, she has borne the imprint of their negativity, living a life ‘less than’ her potential. Yet in those last nine years, she and her parents were blessedly able to bond in a way never possible earlier. Today, she is at peace with herself — and despite her many sacrifices, will tell you that she would do it all over again, without hesitation.

    As my own mother aged, we grew so close that protecting and caring for her was my primary consciousness. Blessedly, she, too, grew in her love for me. At the end of her life, we were truly ‘in love’ with each other, delighting in every precious moment together. For the first time ever, I became selfless, powerfully, irrevocably moved by experiencing pure love.

    The woman I am today would not be, had I not had chosen the opportunity to care for my mother.

  6. Ann Blanchard Says:

    Wow, Martha, what a beautiful reply!

  7. Mary Wilson Says:

    I empathize with Suellen’s situation because it is very similar to my own.

    I am also an only child who helped care for my father. My husband has chronic health issues that require periodic caretaking, and now my 94-year-old mother is in-and-out of hospitals and nursing facilities.

    Throughout this time, I have had my own business. Holding a corporate job would have been impossible. Unfortunately, with no corporate anchor and a chronically-ill husband who is also self-employed, money is very tight, and we have health insurance only through the grace of God and my refusal to give up. We have also tapped into our retirement savings and home equity (at the age of 60) just to stay afloat.

    People who have not had to do this cannot understand what it takes. No matter how well you or your parents plan for these issues, you cannot anticipate everything that happens.

    My parents saved a lot of money and had long-term care insurance. Most of the money is gone – to pay for things not covered by Medicare or supplemental policies and to pay for assisted-living. My mother has too much income to qualify for federal or state assistance.

    Caregiving – even if a parent is in an assisted-living facility or nursing home – is still a full time job, because someone needs to show up almost daily to make sure the care is adequate and to advocate for the resident.

    You need to have skills in everything from Medicare policies, federal/state laws, and nursing home regulations to conflict resolution, stress management and medical knowledge (drug side effects, etc.).

    Sometimes you need to be able to empty bedpans and do dirty jobs you thought you could never do. And all this while smiling and being the “rock” for your parent or loved one.

    As others have pointed out, the upside is that you do grow in your love for each other, and you do grow as a person.

    It takes a toll. If it weren’t for my faith in God and knowing that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m doing, I couldn’t go on.

    I commend Suellen and all the other caregivers for their commitment and dedication.

    My mother whispered to me yesterday from her hospital bed, “Who will take care of you when you can’t care for yourself?” It’s an excellent question – and a scary one.

  8. Martha Trowbridge Says:

    Thank you, Ann. Warm wishes to you, as you care for your dear parents.

  9. Alan Mendelsohn Says:

    When my mother was showing serious signs of dementia, my father reluctantly placed her in a nursing home.

    My mother had a very acute mind and was a natural born teacher. In her late 80′s she had immigrants come to her condo to learn.

    My brother and I lived a two and a half hour plane ride away. Over the years, my mother not only deteriorated but lost all affect. She was fed up. In three years she died of an infection.

    Six months later, my father, who had dormant hepatitis, was struck once again with the disease. It is a horrible disease that eats away at the liver. He got it from a blood transfusion that was tainted. In the last six months, his liver ceased to function.

    My brother and I phoned and spoke to him often. I never felt so close to my Dad than in those six months.

    He couldn’t shave, so I came over and shaved him and trimmed his fingernails. Shaving my father was like a spiritual experience for me, because he was the one who taught me to shave.

    I would visit him with my son, who would always help my dad, who was a brilliant mathematician in his heyday, with the computer. My son also never forgot the times he visited my dad in the last few months.

  10. Scott A. Says:

    You should expect about 78 million responses on this topic. It is a good one.

    I have a friend who has Parkinson’s and a friend who has taken care of her mother for the last five years. I have watched my mother and mother-in–law die in a nursing home.

    Last summer while visiting Patzcauro, Mexico, I watched a very proud son touring the main plaza with his father who was in a wheelchair. Family involvement and belonging to a community is so important to successful aging.

    It is time for a wake up call, because it is our future. The world is rapidly changing, and while we have placed our retirement funds and homes in the hands of others, only to see them mismanaged, this cannot happen to our families.

    The facts are scary. The solution is a collective renewal of values toward a richer life of family, friends and community. We are not alone.

  11. Kimmarie Rojas Says:

    At 38, I underwent an unsuccessful heart valve transplant. Now at 50, I have only a progression of organ failure and perhaps five to ten difficult years ahead of me.

    A few years ago, my father passed at 72 after a lengthy illness, and my sister was his primary caretaker. She devoted much time, energy, and love to taking care of him, as each of his daughters would have. It is a natural progression of life to care for your elderly parents. . . or at least it used to be.

    Yet somehow, when I look to my children for support, I am accused of being selfish and completely out of line. How dare I ask these college age heirs (yes, wealthy heirs), to take out my trash, let alone supplement my (also “large”)$1000.00 a month Social Security check with silly things like food, medicine or clothing!

    And as their own elders, my peers, admonish me for expecting my children to help me, my children believe that it is not their “duty.” What they should call it is simply “love”.

    The “Greatest Generation” made us believe that we would have a gold watch and a comfortable retirement, but that was theirs alone.

    They took it, they spent it, and left nothing for us. And they have children that care for them. If any generation should be angry, it is those of us born to them, the Baby Boomers.

    We take care of them, while we are still taking care of the masses of children we raised that can not now get jobs.

    • ellenbrandtphd Says:

      Kimmarie,

      What a heartfelt comment!

      If you’re interested in being interviewed for the Series, please let me know.

      Ellen


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