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Decision of a lifetime

This is the first installment in an occasional series focusing on the role reversal occurring in our society as adult children are faced with the challenge of aging parents.


When Edgewood Summit opened in 1995, Ken Kleeman figured it would be perfect for his 90-year-old parents.

They could give up their home, move into an apartment, and have plenty of neighbors whom they would dine with daily. If circumstances changed, they could move from an independent-living apartment into the assisted-living wing.

“We encouraged them to go,” Kleeman said. “They didn’t go. She wanted to go. He didn’t. We didn’t influence their decisions a lot.”

Bea Kleeman died last August at 96, and Sidney Kleeman, her husband of 73 years, once the majority owner and CEO of Frankenberger’s clothing store, died three months later, also at 96.

Ken Kleeman’s parents had greater financial resources than most and could pay for capable in-home care. Still, in their later years, they and their children danced around the same issues that millions of other families have faced: What’s best for Mom and Dad? Should Mom and Dad make the decisions themselves? To what extent should the children enter into the discussions?

“He died the way he wanted, in his own bed,” said Joy Kleeman, Ken’s wife. “He wasn’t going to the hospital.”

Sidney Kleeman remained active even in his mid-90s, driving downtown, making his regular stops at Taylor Books, the Medicine Shop and Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream. Friends told the younger Kleemans how remarkable Sidney was. But neither Sidney nor Bea were what they had been.

If aging is a process of contraction, of re-isolation from a big world, Sidney Kleeman fought all that as long as he could. Visits and calls from the grandchildren helped. One grandson often asked Sidney for business advice. “That helped validate his existence,” Joy said. “It made him important.”

Once, Ken Kleeman interceded after his mom had a few fender-benders with the car. Ken had the insurance broker write her a letter saying he could no longer find insurance for her.

“She smelled a rat,” Ken said. “And she was right. She wanted to write to the insurance commissioner.”

The broker’s letter took dead aim on her independence. Her hackles went up, just as they would have gone up 20 or 40 years earlier had someone threatened her way of life.

Bea Kleeman didn’t write to the insurance commissioner. A few years later she died. After her death, when Sidney let unpaid bills pile up, and Joy mentioned it to him, he said, “Why don’t you do it then?”

He was shedding tasks and chores, and his children, as gracefully and seamlessly as they could, were picking them up. Someone had to.

Generally, the children have some sort of role in the decision-making, even when they think they’re left out, said Diane Gouhin, the executive director of Edgewood Summit, the upscale retirement community near Cato Park.

People come to a retirement community because the home and garden they treasured have become a burden, Gouhin said. The chores have become a physical challenge, and the decision-making a bother.

At some point the parents, having discussed things long and hard among themselves, seek advice, or at least confirmation, from the children, Gouhin said. “I’m thinking of this. What do you think?”

Very few people walk in and say they want to move in tomorrow, Gouhin said. “Usually they come several times over two or three years, and each time they evaluate, ‘Are we ready? Is it time to make that decision?’”

Sometimes the decision-making process isn’t long and wavering. Sometimes a crisis erupts and the adult children have to react.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene Berger and her husband were already going every other weekend to McDowell County to help her 80-year-old arthritic mother get to the grocery store and do household chores. Then her mom suffered a spontaneous broken leg. The years were catching up to her, and she knew it.

“We would have had a much more difficult time convincing her to leave her home were it not for the broken leg,” Berger said. “She was leaving her church, all her friends, everyone she had known all her life. That’s difficult to do.”

Berger’s mother died two years ago at 90. She had crocheted on the back porch at the Bergers’ townhouse and visited with the neighbors, but the tightest bonds she formed in her last residence were the strengthened ones between mother and daughter.

“It’s difficult to watch a parent get older and go from them taking care of you to you taking care of them,” Berger said. “But it was a priceless time to have her share stories of things that happened during her lifetime and family experiences that we didn’t know about. There’s a lot to learn from them if you open yourself up to it.”

Make no mistake, the long-term care of a loved one is like a long-distance race that no one wins. The task by its nature is emotionally draining.

“It was difficult, but it wasn’t just duty and hardship,” Berger said. “It was also very rewarding.”

To contact staff writer Bob Schwarz, use e-mail or call 348-1249.


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