Saturday, March 20, 2010

Now You See Them, Now You Don't--Long Distance Caregiving

Your parents may live states away, but you worry anyway. And when you finally see them face to face, you realize why!

The angst of long-distance caregiving came home to me personally when my parents arrived at Sea-Tac airport for a 10-day visit to celebrate too many family occasions: two graduations, one wedding and a surprise celebration for Daddy and Mother's 50th anniversary. Father's Day capped it off.

My first shock came at the gate. Daddy suffered from Parkinson's, and Mother, a chronic illness. I knew his disease was progressing, but on the phone a week earlier, they'd assured me, "We're doing fine." Now, I wasn't so sure. I watched airline personnel push them in wheelchairs, their bodies hunched over.

At home, little details began to tell the real story: Mother's dress was packed unlaundered. Minor medical crises sprinkled every day with surprise. One day Mother tumbled from the car to the front lawn, landing flat on her back. Nothing broken, except her pride. The scene reminded me of a signature commercial, "I'm falling, and I can't get up!" Daddy, frail from Parkinson's, couldn't help me lift this 200-pound woman to an upright position. I managed, but my technique would have gotten me tossed out of a nursing assistant class.

"I need my Fleet enema. I need it now!" Daddy moaned another day. Until then, I hadn't heard of such a thing. But the constipating effects of the Parkinson's medication could not be ignored. I raced to the drugstore.

Daddy's biggest fear was he'd trip down the aisle at the wedding.

He didn't trip, thanks to our son's gentle handling. In fact, the kids all did well caring for their grandparents. But multiple social occasions coupled with unforeseen physical and emotional needs took their toll on us all.

On Father's Day, the day after Shari's wedding, I decided to skip church. Nothing doing. Daddy gave me that, "I'm so disappointed in you," look and I crumbled.

When I left the airport after delivering them to their outgoing flight and kissing them goodbye, I thought about what I'd learned about long-distance caregiving. Some thoughts:

1. Aging parents are notoriously terrible reporters. They don't mean to worry their kids, so they skirt around the truth. When they say on the phone, "We're doing fine," they may mean, "The house hasn't burned down, and we both have heart beats." We children have to do investigative reporting to get the real scoop.

2. A corollary is to listen to tone of voice. If your parents say on the phone, "Things are great," but sound like they're gasping for air, something is not right. Go with the voice, not the words.

3. A corollary to the corollary is, if they say, "I know flights are expensive; you don't have to come," don't believe it.

I'll be writing more about long-distance parenting. Do you have some thoughts or observations?

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