Caring for Mom, Pop: Whose responsibility is it?
WINFIELD — For years, Martha Nisbet stocked produce and ran a cash register at the Winfield IGA. After a hard day at work with her son, Guy Nisbet Jr., she returned to her home, where her husband, Guy Sr., waited for her.
In 1984, Guy Jr. sold the grocery store in order to better care for his aging parents. His father’s health had been failing for years, and his mother’s was heading down the same path.
Nisbet built an addition onto his ranch-style home in Winfield. The addition — complete with two bedrooms, a living room and bathroom — would become his parents’ new home.
This is the third 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.
“It was mostly my idea for them to move in with me,” Guy Nisbet Jr. said. “My dad, even though he wasn’t himself all the time, was looking forward to it. If there was anything he could remember, he would always ask me if the house was finished yet.”
As Baby Boomers age, more and more of them are facing the challenge of caring for their parents. Today, there are 35 million Americans age 65 or older. By 2030, that number will double, according to the US Census Bureau.
Guy Nisbet Sr. was in St. Francis Hospital, with cancer, while his son was building the addition onto his home. “He always thought he could come home as soon as the house was finished,” Guy Jr. said.
But the elder Nisbet never moved into the addition with his wife.
“He never got to see the house finished,” his son said. “He died two weeks after I got it finished.”
The younger Nisbet had brief conversations with his two sisters about caring for their parents as they aged. But there wasn’t an argument, Guy Nisbet Jr. said.
“I said I’m adding on to my house for Mom and Dad,” he recalled recently. “At the time, it sounded all right to them. One of the three of us would have to care for them, and since I volunteered it was agreeable. There was no wrasslin’ about it.”
‘I was frustrated that they didn’t help more ...’
It is a bit unusual for Baby Boomer siblings to reach such an amicable agreement when it comes to their parents’ care. Usually, there are lengthy discussions about issues such as money and health care. Sometimes, brothers and sisters argue and end up not speaking to one another — like in Ellen Mills Pauley’s case.
Pauley has four older siblings and two younger ones. She is the “oldest of the second litter.” There is a 5-year age difference between the older siblings and the younger siblings, Pauley explained.
Some of Pauley’s siblings moved away and never looked back. Others, including Pauley, stayed and lived near the Putnam County farm where they grew up.
Pauley raised her two sons — Patrick and Justin — in a farmhouse next to her aging parents, Leonard and Anne Catherine “Katie” Mills. As her parents aged, their health care became a family affair.
After her father died in November 1998, Pauley and her sons cared for Katie Mills, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
“My children were wonderful to help out with my mother,” Pauley recalled. “At a very early age, they were in tune with her needs. They put her needs before their own.”
For years, Katie Mills lived in the farmhouse off US 35, and Pauley and her sons cared for her. Like Nisbet, Pauley didn’t have any discussions with her siblings about their mother’s care. Pauley just assumed the responsibility because she was closest.
“I was frustrated that they didn’t help more, but I wouldn’t change anything,” Pauley said. “I’m glad what my kids and I got out of this.”
Of the 25 million family caregivers in America, 73 percent are women — daughters. They struggle to cope with exhaustion, loneliness, mental and physical demands and the heartbreak of watching their parents grow weaker.
Before a daughter becomes bitter about caring for her parents, she should talk to her siblings and ask for help, said Dr. Richard Hamm, director of West Virginia University’s Center on Aging.
Pauley never asked for help. Her siblings did what they could for their parents, she said. The eldest child — also a daughter — wanted to put her parents into a nursing home. But the couple wanted to stay home, as most seniors do.
According to the National Family Caregivers Association, nearly 84 percent of seniors surveyed say they are likely to remain in their homes rather than move into a care facility.
So, Pauley started caring for her mother while Katie Mills continued to live at home. Across the country, family caregivers provide 80 percent of all home-care services, according to the association.
As Katie Mills aged, dementia set in. Most days, Mills didn’t know her own daughter was caring for her.
“I would ask her if she’s seen Ellen lately, and she would say no,” Pauley recalled.
Pauley’s siblings had a hard time dealing with the dementia, she said. “They would say, ‘That’s not my mother. She’s not who I remembered her to be,’” Pauley said.
Eventually, Mills’ medical needs made it necessary to move her into a nursing home. Pauley had put the family farmhouse in the names of all the children, so that the state couldn’t claim it to pay for her mother’s medical bills.
“I saved the house from estate recovery because my mother was never in state care,” Pauley said. “But then my siblings came in and claimed their piece of the property.”
An older sister and her son sued Pauley for the farmhouse. Pauley eventually settled the case, but she never spoke to her sister again.
Though the sibling relationships were severed, Pauley said she has no regrets. She is happy she had the opportunity to care for her parents.
“Taking care of your parents is like raising your children,” she said. “You only get one chance at it. I’m really, really glad I had the chance to do it.”
‘You should talk to your parents before they get old’
In order to avoid a sticky situation or heated argument, children of aging parents should address concerns before they become problems, Hamm said.
“Every crack in a bad relationship in a family is going to be stressed when a parent ages,” Hamm said. “That’s why you should talk to your parents long before they get old and see what they want. Everyone should know their parents and what they want done.”
There are several points that Baby Boomer children need to discuss, including advanced directives, financial planning and health care, Hamm said.
Children should encourage parents to write a living will, he said. Children need to talk to their parents about whether there are enough financial resources set aside to pay for their health care, taxes and other bills.
“They need to put aside assets for a very rainy day,” Hamm said.
When families sit down to talk about these issues, it is important for them to be honest with one another, he said.
“They need to talk about who is going to do what,” Hamm said. “Each person needs to say what he or she is willing to do.”
If each sibling doesn’t talk and share the responsibility of caring for their parents, then the responsibility usually falls on one person — the child living closest to the parents.
“In my experience, one person takes on the role and gets stressed out,” Hamm said.
Nisbet said he doesn’t get overwhelmed with caring for his mother and his wife, Modina, who has had two debilitating back surgeries.
“You just take one day at a time and do the best you can,” he said. “It’s all about giving more than receiving. You get more out of life that way anyway.”
The National Family Caregivers Association reports that family caregivers spend an average of 22 hours each week providing care to elderly relatives or friends.
Most of Nisbet’s week is spent caring for his mother and wife, running errands and working on a project to build a senior center in Winfield.
He has little time for himself.
“The only thing I miss is playing golf once in a while,” Nisbet said. “But it isn’t the end of the world. Their life is more important than golf.”
Nisbet may be unique in many regards. He accepts his responsibilities without any resentment and is one of only about 27 percent of caregivers who are men. Most of these men care for their mothers and have more financial resources (than their sisters) to provide that care, Hamm said.
Nisbet talks to his sisters about their 87-year-old mother. But he doesn’t expect anything from them — financially or otherwise.
“We work on Mother’s Social Security and whatever else is needed at that point, I take care of it,” Nisbet said. “Her money is used for medicine and insurance policies.”
His sisters do their share to care for their mother. For the last couple of years, Martha Nisbet has visited with her daughters for a few weeks each summer. She is currently visiting her eldest child in Bedford, Pa., for a few weeks. She will then visit her youngest child in Columbia, Md.
“We’re letting her decide how long she wants to stay,” Nisbet said. “When you get to that age, you’re thinking about death, not about life.”
To contact staff writer Rachelle Bott, use e-mail or call 348-5156.