"I think a lot of people do a good job of hiding the fact that they are not functioning as well as they used to," says Lynn Altman, in remembering when her parents first discovered that her grandmother needed caregiving. "First she thought she had a cricket on her ceiling, but it was the smoke alarm beeping. She had a friend helping her with grocery shopping, and we found out that all she was asking for was Cocoa Puffs. Then, on two occasions she left the stove on and had a small kitchen fire. That is when we stepped in, because she was becoming a danger to herself and others."
Lynn was 17 at the time. She observed and helped as both her parents became the primary caregivers of her father's mother, Beatrice. One thing Lynn always admired about Beatrice was her independence; she had taken a bold step by requesting that she and her husband both change their names (she didn't like his last name) and so they took his mother's maiden name; she had lost her husband when she was only 45 years old and worked as a secretary in order to support herself and her family. When she retired she traveled around the world by herself and with friends. In her later years, Beatrice developed acute diabetes, which affected her mind and caused her to need full-time care. Lynn watched as Beatrice was forced to give up the independent lifestyle she coveted so much.
After Beatrice suffered a mild heart attack, she entered assisted living. "She had been showing signs of dementia and it was a good time to have her live in a more supervised environment since she was a danger to herself and other residents of her apartment building," says Lynn. Then, while in assisted living she fell and broke her hip. She needed nursing care so at that point she went to a nursing home. "She was very unhappy in both places, but we knew she could no longer live alone," says Lynn. She made her unhappiness clear to everyone, though, Lynn recalls. "She would start problems with other people at the assisted living facility. If someone tried to sit near her at a meal, she pushed them away."
Coming to grips with the truth
Although this was still her grandmother, she didn't behave as the person Lynn and her parents knew. "'She's not grandma anymore.' That is how my mother explained it to me. She became a woman that we needed to take care of."
Many people have the same type of experience with their elderly family members and friends, as their health deteriorates and they begin to lose their mental capacities. It is very sad for family members when they realize their parent isn't really in there anymore. "She would ask to see her long-deceased husband or tell us she saw George Washington," Lynn remembers.
Although she was told that her grandmother was "no longer grandma," Lynn wasn't sure if that was completely true at times. "After work, I would go visit her and a few times she whispered to me, 'You know, I'm not as crazy as you all think I am.'"
Beatrice lived in the nursing home for a little over a year when she died at the age of 81.
Using experience as a guide
Lynn's parents and Lynn have been through an experience that will help guide them as they age. "Because of the experience with my grandmother, my parents are more prepared for their future," says Lynn. "They already have advanced directives about the type of care they would like and have made it clear to me what some of their wishes for the future would be."
It's difficult to have the discussion about eldercare and end of life, but those who prepare ahead of time are glad they did. When these decisions have to be made in crisis mode, it creates much more stress on all the family members — and it's difficult to think clearly under high-stress conditions. Lynn adds: "As children who went through this with a parent, my parents understand the issues I will have to face as caregiver."
Parentgiving: giving others the resources to cope
As a founder of Parentgiving, Lynn hopes to help others with a one-stop resource that will answer their questions and address their concerns. "I saw what happened when people didn't have a plan and now I know the importance of planning and having these conversations with my parents. I want to be the voice for the generation that thinks and acts ahead. Parentgiving isn't just for those who currently are caregivers. It is also there to help people begin the planning process, organize documents and medications, and find the products they need to prevent falls, promote healthy eating and proactive measures that will help them take better care of their parents."