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Asserting independence

CAROL is a 55-year-old professional. She has a career and a family. But much of the past five years of her life have been consumed with caring for her aging parents.

Both in their upper 80s, they live near Carol’s Kanawha County home. Both require care 24 hours a day. Carol’s father has become bedridden, and her mother has become increasingly forgetful and disagreeable.

“She’s beat on me, and she’s ordered me out of her house,” said Carol, who doesn’t want to use her real name for fear of upsetting her parents. “She’s locked the caregivers out. She’s hit some of the caregivers because she doesn’t want them there.

“It’s hard emotionally,” Carol admits. “A lot of times I go out of there in tears, or I’m just so angry and frustrated. It’s gotten to the point where I just avoid her. I talk with the caregivers. I’ll sneak into the house when I want to talk to my dad.”

Carol’s experience is not unique. “We deal with these kinds of situations every day,” said Linda Rhodes, social services director for Kanawha Valley Senior Services.

Many senior citizens age gracefully. But as some people get older, they become angry and defiant, refusing to take medications, ignoring advice of their doctors and fighting with family members.

“Change is difficult,” said Lynn Hartman, marketing director for Charleston’s Edgewood Summit retirement community. “It’s even harder for a senior to make a change.”

Change agitates Carol’s mother. She gets mean, hits and curses. The doctor gave her Valium to calm her nerves, but when she found out what it was, she flushed the pills down the toilet.

“Now she refuses to even take a vitamin pill,” Carol said.

Carol’s mother hides her purse because she’s sure her caregivers will steal it. Then she forgets where she put it. She resents younger women taking care of her husband.

“I have to really keep myself from crying,” Carol said. “Some days I get so mad at her I just want to hit her back.

“I’m the only one here, so it’s all on my shoulders. I get postcards from my sisters saying they’re here or they’re going there, and I’m stuck back here.”

Power and independence

As people age, Hartman speculates, they are in command of fewer and fewer aspects of their own lives. People who have lived 50 years in their own home suddenly find themselves unable to keep house or cook dinner. They can no longer drive themselves to the store.

“I think power and independence are interchangeable,” said Hartman. She thinks many seniors see their increasing loss of independence as a downhill slide into powerlessness.

“Nobody wants to give up their independence,” agrees another Kanawha County woman who is dealing with her aging parents. “Nobody wants to give up their self-determination, no matter how demented they become.”

The woman, who also asked that her name not be used, moved her parents into her home when they stopped bathing and eating.

“We could see that they really just weren’t able to be alone,” she said. Her father wouldn’t get out of his chair. “My mother was living on Tootsie Rolls and Rice Krispies with diet cola poured over it.”

The daughter said she imposed a routine and politely but firmly enforced it. She and her husband laid out clothing so her parents would change clothes. They made out a schedule so her parents would go to bed and awaken on time. They laid out meals so the elderly couple would eat properly. They hired caregivers when the woman’s mother became too resistant for her daughter to give her a bath.

At dinnertime, her mother would sometimes hide her food. Or she’d go to the bathroom and spit it out. When she tried to get her father to stop scratching an open sore, he accused her of treating him like a child.

“I told him I couldn’t let him do something to hurt himself,” she said. “It’s hard to know when you have to step in and be the parent.”

Knowing when to get help

The woman and her husband have their own health problems. After a little more than three months of caring for her parents, she said, “It was just too much for us to handle, even with hiring help.”

It was then that she talked her parents into moving to a nearby retirement community. Though they resisted that change as well, at least they’re now in the company of other people and have constant access to care.

“They have entertainment there, they have nice meals and they have church services,” she said. “It’s just a very nice place.”

Hartman, of Edgewood Summit, said it’s important for children with aging parents to recognize when it’s time to step in and get help. Senior citizens will often insist they can take care of themselves, when it’s really their children who are doing most of the work.

“When the plumbing goes out or the roof needs fixed, they call their kids,” she said. “Help your parents take a reality check. Talk to them honestly. If they’re a burden, be honest with them.”

Carol’s parents considered moving into a retirement community but decided against it. Now she fears it’s too late.

“Move your parents when they’re still capable of making friends and can enjoy what they’re doing,” she urges.

Dr. Jim Griffith, director of psychiatric services for Charleston Area Medical Center, said it’s not uncommon for people to become disagreeable as they age. But violent mood swings or major changes in personality may be a sign of dementia or other degenerative conditions.

When children find themselves making decisions for their aging parents, it’s important to sit down and honestly assess the situation with them, he said.

“The key message to get across is ‘We care about you,’” Griffith said.

To contact staff writer Rusty Marks, use e-mail or call 348-1215.

Growing old in W.Va.

According to the 2000 Census, almost 277,000 West Virginians are over age 65. Seniors make up more than 15 percent of the state’s population, giving West Virginia one of the highest proportions of elderly residents in the nation.


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