9 Realities of Caring for an Elderly Parent: A Love Story of a Different Kind

Every day, 45 million Baby Boomers are taking care of their elderly parents. That’s a daunting statistic, especially when you consider most are holding down a job, caring for their own children, and completely unprepared for the stark realities of end of life issues. There are handbooks on what to expect when you’re expecting, but nobody wants to talk about what to expect when the roles are reversed – when the parent becomes the child – and it can happen so suddenly.

Stefania Shaffer, author of 9 Realities of Caring for an Elderly Parent: A Love Story of a Different Kind suddenly found herself a statistic when she received a phone call from her seemingly healthy, alert and buoyant mother, requesting that Stefania come for a long-overdue visit. By the end of the first weekend, it was evident Mom could no longer manage to be in her home by herself; the house was in ruins and so was Mom. It was enough to make Stefania uproot her own life to fulfill Mom’s wish to live out her years remaining in her own home. Shaffer imagined they would have fun until the end when she would go to sleep with a smile on her face. “Death is very clever,” says Shaffer, “and I should have been more creative in my thinking. It was five years from my arrival, when my mother died at my side.”16. Shaffer-9 Realities coverLARGEtif

Like most sudden caregivers, Stefania didn’t know what she was agreeing to when she took on the job of caring for her elderly parent. If only someone had shared with her the realities this job would entail. In her second book, 9 Realities of Caring for an Elderly Parent: A Love Story of a Different Kind, Stefania offers a playbook to prepare the adult child for each of the nine realities essential to managing this journey, from de-cluttering the family home to grief counseling for the adult orphan.

Although it tackles a difficult topic, the book is as entertaining as it is helpful, sharing the touching and often heart-wrenching anecdotes and invaluable lessons learned from a daughter caring for her mother as she approaches the end of her life. This surprisingly funny, compassionate, and daunting account of what to expect if you are the adult child coming home to care for your elderly parent is a step-by-step companion for all who find themselves in charge of a parent’s well-being, making it an essential playbook for the millions of baby boomers about to face the toughest challenge of their lives.

ALIVE Magazine: What were the thoughts that led you to share your experience caring for your elderly mother?

Stefania Shaffer: I could not escape the nagging feeling that I wished someone had sat me on a stool to share with me the realities of what goes into caring for an elderly person. There was a lot to manage even before my mother fell into decline. The constant worry of what if the next fall resulted in a head injury or a broken hip really made me aware of how fragile seniors can be. It never occurred to me I would be dealing with home repair issues typical for old houses, plus shuttling back and forth to doctor appointments, and more importantly, spending years sleuthing through 85 boxes in the garage to figure out where her assets were. I finally felt compelled to demystify what goes on behind the scenes of elder care so other Baby Boomers will know upfront what lies ahead.

AM: What were some of the most surprising realities you learned, aside from home repair?

SS: I learned that seniors are on rosters of rotating doctors that require nearly weekly appointments for some kind of check up. Whether it is for a hearing appointment, or bone density test, or blood work, or eye doctors, it is constant running, much like what I imagine moms do for kids with after school extra-curricular activities. I learned that a bed bound person requires diapering, something I hadn’t done since I was a babysitter for kids in our neighborhood thirty years earlier. I learned that without long-term health insurance, the night nurse duties fall to you. I also learned that not everyone wants to visit your elderly parent when they are sick because it is too painful—for the visitor. Some people expressed to me that they just wanted to remember my mom the way she was before her decline. But hearing is the last sense we lose before death, so patients know who has come to visit.

AM: What is the biggest problem that elders face, in your opinion?

SS: Elders who cannot see very well, or hear very well, or are unsteady in their balance are particularly vulnerable, but they can still feel fiercely independent, as my mom did. Ninety percent of elders in surveys through AARP research will say they want to remain in their own home, but if they do not see well enough to cook, or hear well enough to answer the door or telephone, it can be very isolating. It is also very taxing to maintain upkeep on a decades old home. A senior needs regular contact with someone who is laying eyes on the scene inside to determine what the senior is eating, what kind of condition they are living in, and what kind of personal care they need. A senior who no longer drives is even more reliant on a steady stream of supporters.

AM: How would one be able to determine if their parent is still safe in their own home?

SS: There are specific warning signs in a checklist from the Aging Solutions website with the top ten questions you need to know the answers to if you want your senior to be safe at home. Chief among them, does your elderly parent turn on the stove and walk away? My mom would take naps while pots sizzled and hissed melting upon burners hours later. Does your elderly parent know how to exit the house and return? Does she know how to make an emergency phone call? Is your elderly parent able to prepare meals? My mother was spoon-feeding herself from a jar of Ragu and calling that dinner. Does your parent look clean or is she wearing a threadbare robe with coffee splatters and Ragu drippings all up and down the front? These are things you will not know if you are long distance or not within those walls. There was a lot my mom was trying to hide from anyone who wanted to visit, so she would wait on the bench outside for her friends.

AM: What are the first steps to take as the adult child coming home to care for an elderly parent?

SS: Step 1: Check to see what legal documents are still not in order. The starter kit of four includes: an Advanced Health Care Directive, a Power of Attorney for Finances, a Will, and a Trust.

Step 2: Determine how safe the home is by looking for tripping hazards, sharp corners on tables in case an elderly parent falls down, and analyze the meal prep pattern and medicine routine. Is the elder able to see well enough to self-medicate or will he accidentally overdose because he can no longer read labels?

Step 3: Know where the assets are held. Many seniors hide money in the house. I wish that all of our assets had been in one place, with a tidy little bow around them. I would have avoided the scavenger hunt I endured for years gaining access to many different safe deposit boxes, and poring through two hundred empty cartons of checkbook boxes after the first one I un-lidded had fifty dollars tucked away.

AM: How did you share the role of caregiving with your siblings?

SS: I wish our family had even roles and worked out a schedule with alternating days of caregiving. I found that once my siblings got comfortable with the fact that I was there, they knew they didn’t have to be. Some families are able to really pull together in a crisis. My siblings were limited in what they could do, and fortunately, I suppose, they entrusted the job to me.

AM: What made you think you could do this job instead of putting your mother in assisted care?

SS: I had no idea what I was saying yes to. Looking back, no one says yes to Firefighting or Nursing or the ARMY without asking a few questions up front about what a typical day at work is like. I would have still said yes, but I would have known better what the job entailed. Organizing and planning has always been my strength, even from an early age when elementary teachers would allow me to help them after school.
I have also gained experience from tackling classrooms and donation centers that were dumpsites until I overhauled them by purging and reimagining a thoughtful staging space. I also knew my mother’s words were ringing in my ears from a lifetime of hearing, “If you put me in a home, that will be the surest way to get rid of me.” I wanted to fulfill her wish that she remain in her own home.

AM: Looking back, how did you manage day to day, not knowing how long the decline would last?

SS: The scariest part was wondering if she would outlast her money. I was so grateful to have the support of an incredible Hospice team and then my mom’s health took an upswing, which meant Hospice was preparing a temporary exit. This was my greatest fear because I had no idea how to care for a bedbound mother whose entire life’s goal was to die in her own home. My focus became to make sure she did not die alone. I became overanxious about following through on every idea I had to make her more comfortable. I never procrastinated because I never knew if today would be her last day. It got to the point where I was afraid to turn my back to go down the hall for fear she would be gone when I returned moments later.

AM: Your mother, in essence, became your child. What kind of mother would you be?

SS: I would have been a very nervous mother. Maybe this is how most first-time mothers are with newborns. From the beginning, my sense of urgency revolved around her falling and breaking a hip. Then my anxiety ramped up when warning signs began to appear for onset dementia; I did not know how I would be able to care for someone with Alzheimer’s. Then, trying to protect her from her horrible hallucinations that left her petrified made me cry because there was nothing I could do to help. In the end, I comforted her with reminders that she is home, she is safe, and I am here. It’s all I kept repeating to try and soothe her. I am so grateful I did it. It was my privilege. But, I don’t think I will ever again have the kind of energy required to give to someone else in that same way.

AM: What are you most grateful for after spending the last five years of your mother’s life together?

SS: I am so grateful I came home. We needed to mend a rift. I am so grateful I got to see all the qualities my father always said made him fall in love with her. I discovered her sense of humor and wish I was half as funny. Had I not come home, I never would have met the man who became my husband, whom she affectionately termed her “Son-in-Love.” Those years of our pairing were what built our bond as the Three Musketeers. I am so grateful I got my wish that she not die alone. I am so grateful I have no regrets.

AM: What would you say to a busy adult who is faced with the same prospect of moving back home?

SS: Get ready for the single hardest job you have ever known. It will be what Hospice nurses will liken to post-traumatic stress syndrome for war-torn soldiers who saw the worst of the battle from the frontlines. When you are the on-site caregiver, it is a completely different experience than being the relative who pops in from afar on occasion. Be prepared to take the brunt of family members’ emotions because death and money bring out the worst in family dynamics, even for families that are not fractured to begin with, like mine. If you are part of the “sandwich generation,” wherein you are simultaneously raising children at home while caring for an elderly parent, be prepared for marital strain, which is true for those of us who weren’t also taking care of children at home. Get organized. Preparation prevents regret. This will be your greatest privilege.22. Headshot-smiling DSC_9677 copy
9 Realities of Caring for an Elderly Parent is available on Amazon and at www.stefaniashaffer.com

Little Red Wagon

I’m a sucker for a feel good movie. I’m even a bigger sucker for a “Purpose Driven” movie. The Little Red Wagon is a docudrama based on the story of an eight year old boy who dedicates his life to helping children rendered homeless by Hurricane Charley. In this inspirational drama based on actual events, Zach Bonner learns that you can’t put a price on life’s greatest gifts.LittleRedWagon_1sht

After hurricane Charley barely misses Zach’s home but devastates many others nearby, he’s dejected by the images of the families whose lives are uprooted by the disaster. Deciding to do something about it, Zach uses his old trusty wagon to collect essential items to help them get back on their feet. When the media spotlights Zach’s benevolent endeavors, the selfless boy seizes the opportunity to launch his own charity, dubbed the Little Red Wagon Foundation.

Later, Zach encounters a widow and her son who were rendered homeless and vows to draw attention to their plight by embarking on a cross country walk. Despite his single mother’s trepidations about the journey and his teenage sister’s growing resentment over being stuck at the center of the media circus, Zach sets out on a journey that will transform not just his own life, but also the lives of everyone he encounters.

Zach Bonner is often called the kid with the heart of gold. His passion to aid the more than 1.3 million homeless children in the United States warranted him receiving the prestigious Presidential Service Award in 2006.

Through his foundation, Zach did many “walk projects” to raise money and awareness. His “My House to the White House” journey showcased the plight of the homeless and in 2010 Zach walked 2,448 miles from Tampa, Florida to Los Angeles, California. Zach is now 16 years old and still striving to abate the suffering of homeless children.

Little Red Wagon is an amazing story about an incredible young man and the family that supports him. They walk with him, nurse and feed him along the way and manage the “Zach Tracker,” his GPS device so his supporters can follow him.

I highly recommend this DVD for its social value alone. It’s a great teaching tool for kids, teens and adults. Zach could teach us all a thing or two about love and charity. In my humble opinion, it’s never too early to start showing our children the habit of helping others.

So, sit down with the kids or the grandkids, or grab someone else’s kids, and watch Little Red Wagon. Maybe the flame of passion for helping others that once burned brightly within you will be rekindled as well. Your life will be changed as you help to change someone else’s life.

As always, I welcome your comments at chastings@rockcliff.com.

Music of the West and Famous Singing Cowboys

To most people Western music conjures up thoughts of cowboys, Indians, the Wild West, wagon trains, pioneers, settlers, westward expansion, exploration, and the Continental Railroad. Musicologists consider Western music as a form of music indigenous to the United States. However, there is a caveat; much of Western music has origins influenced by the folk music of the British Isles, including England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Along with Western music, Appalachian music, often called hillbilly music, has similar origins in folk music. Much of both Western and Appalachian music was composed by people living and working in these regions of the country. Although the vast majority of Western music was composed by Westerners, serious internationally known composers also penned Western music. Aaron Copland (1900-1990), without a doubt, is the most well-known. He wrote Billy the Kid in 1938, Rodeo in 1942 and Appalachian Spring in 1944. These very famous and often played pieces are still popular today.

The Grand Canyon Suite, by Ferde Grofe (1892-1972), depicting the great geological formation in Arizona, is also a very well-known piece of Western music.

Cowboys and Indians, lawmen and outlaws, the forty-niners, and the grandeur of the West itself have all inspired the writing of Western music. Of course there are many other aspects of the West that are set to music, but these are paramount.

Listening to Western music was, of course, limited to live performances of instrumentalists and singers in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. When the phonograph and radio came into being a whole new world of listening to this genre of music became a reality. New audiences were immediately drawn to the music of the West as it became the recipient of a new popularity.

With the advent of sound in films on the silver screen, the era of the singing cowboy came upon the American scene. They remained an important part of Western films, especially during its “hey-day” in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Singing cowboys portrayed in these films became authentic American heroes to the movie going public. These Western heroes were presented as being squeaky clean; good; fair-minded; never cussed; never hit a man when he was down; clean-shaven; didn’t drink or smoke; wore clean clothes and a white hat and didn’t kiss the girls. Interesting contrast to today’s movie portrayals!

Two giants of the singing cowboy genre in this era were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Autry was born in Tioga, Texas in 1907. Autry was known as the “Singing Cowboy.” He wrote and recorded many western songs. His interest in music was encouraged by his mother who taught him hymns and folk songs. One of his early jobs was working for the railroad for $35 a month. Later Autry became a telegraph operator and it was here that he was discovered. He worked at night and when he was not busy he played the guitar and sang. He was heard by a customer and was told that he would probably have a future in radio. That customer was humorist and actor, Will Rogers. Autry’s film, radio, and television career followed. He was an enormous success and a great influence, writing, singing and playing Western music. Autry died in 1998 when he was 91.

Roy Rogers, known as “The King of the Cowboys,” was born in 1911. His early music career started with an appearance on a radio show singing, playing guitar and yodeling. In 1931, when he was 20 years old, he joined “The Rocky Mountaineers”, a local country group.

In 1932 Rogers and two others left the Mountaineers and formed a trio. A year later, in 1933, they put a new group together, named the “Pioneer Trio.” Later, they formed “The Sons of the Pioneers” who became famous on radio and through recordings. Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water, early songs they recorded, were smash hits. Rogers’ film career began in 1935. He appeared in over 100 films and numerous radio and television episodes of “The Roy Rogers Show.” His famous horse, Trigger, billed “The Smartest Horse in the Movies” and German Sheppard dog, Bullet, were mainstays in his shows. Rogers’ television shows and Western musical films were popular with the young and old alike. Happy Trails, written by his wife, Dale Evans, became the theme song for his show. He enjoyed a long, very successful career and marriage. He died in 1998, he was 86 years old.

Espousing patriotism, heroism, and clean moral living, Rogers gained an enormous following of young fans. With his endorsement of a multitude of products—from children’s toys to cereal brands—Rogers, with Evans and Trigger, evolved into pop cultural icons. Receiving many awards during his career, Rogers was twice elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame; first as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1980, and again as a soloist in 1988. To this day, he remains the only person elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame twice.

Country music today is one of the most popular forms of music in America. It takes its roots from southeastern American folk music, Western music, and the Blues. It encompasses Western music, which evolved parallel to hillbilly music from similar roots in the mid-20th century. The term “country music” is used to describe many styles and sub genres.

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