In 2013, my mother got sick. Really sick. And that left me with a dilemma.
I grew up a very lucky girl with an amazing support system. My parents and teachers not only believed in me, encouraging me to pursue my dreams, but they provided me with the means to do so. Most of my life, I have only had to be responsible for myself, and I tried to become the best person I could be. I received a great education, traveled the world, earned a Ph.D. and eventually got a position teaching at Stanford. When I decided to change careers by moving to LA to work in the film industry, my parents supported me again and helped make it happen.
Three years ago, I was successfully working in television and film, when I received the phone call that changed my life forever. My mom (whose name is Love, but that’s a story for another time) had gone on her daily walk, but somehow got off track. She ended up wandering three miles from home, over the hill, past the train tracks, through traffic and busy intersections, until she finally got tired and knocked on someone’s door. The woman who answered realized that something was wrong with my mother, and called the police. Mom had no ID on her, but they figured out who she was and brought her home.
My mother has Alzheimer’s Disease. She was first diagnosed in 2004, but it’s a relatively slow-moving disease, and my father had been able to manage caring for her on his own. Unfortunately, my dad is also sick. He has COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) also known as emphysema, which made him very weak and tired, and he was spending much of the day in bed sleeping.
Fortunately, my mom was okay after her misadventure, but it was a serious wake-up call. I knew the situation had become too difficult for my father to handle on his own and someone needed to do something.
And then I realized that there was no one else. That “someone” would have to be me.
At that point, I decided I had to leave California, the place I loved, the career I loved, my friends, my whole life, and move across the country back to the house in New Jersey where I had grown up. I had to let go of the wonderful life that I had worked so hard to build, all my dreams, to move back home to live with my parents and to become a caregiver.
I believe in taking action to do something to make the world a better place. Now I was being presented with a chance to make a huge difference in the lives of two people that I love dearly. People who had always been there for me no matter what. I knew then that I couldn’t let them down.
Well-meaning friends told me that I was crazy to give up my life to take care of Mom. But what else could I do? I could no longer concentrate. Knowing my mother was spending her days alone and at risk, not eating well, made it impossible for me to enjoy anything. I was afraid that at any time I could get another phone call telling me something terrible had happened to her or my Dad. I couldn’t live with that guilt.
In life, we make choices all the time. Very often, it’s relatively easy to know which choice is right. Up until this moment, almost every decision I had made concerning my future had been based upon what would be best thing for me and me alone. This time, discerning the right choice was very difficult. On the one hand, I could stay in California and pursue my dreams. Nobody would fault me if I did. On the other hand, I could “give up my life” and go take care of my parents who so desperately needed me.
The decision seemed to boil down to: “my life vs. their lives.” But what I discovered, is that this is not the case at all. Just because I decided to take on the responsibility of caring for my parents, it did not mean — and it did not have to mean — that I had given up on myself. Rather, it simply meant that I needed to find a way to do both.
This experience has been the greatest challenge of my life. But just because it is extremely difficult and often heart-breaking does not mean it is hopeless. Rather, it is an experience that has made me stronger than I ever thought possible.
Women around the world do almost all the caregiving for the sick and the elderly. Most often they have no choice and are simply thrown into it, as I was. I hope in this series to show you what it is like to be a caregiver for sick and elderly parents. I want to bring awareness to the struggle of those with Alzheimer’s disease, and to share my continuing struggle to find balance, caring for my parents and caring for myself at the same time. Hopefully, I can give you a go-to guide on how to care for others without losing yourself in the process.
Next time, I will tell you about how my parents reacted when I told then I was moving back home to New Jersey, and what those first few months were like.