Living with Elderly Parents: Do You Regret the Decision?

You did it, didn't you? You promised, long ago when your dad died, that you'd take care of Mom and she'd never have to go to a nursing home. You promised Mom – after her visit to a nursing home, one of the worst in the state, to visit a friend – that she'd never have to go to a care facility of any kind.

No, you would always take care of her. After all, she always cared for you. Or, even though she wasn't a very good mother, and you never really got along, one cares for one's own, right? Or, your mother was pretty healthy and doing okay and you were divorced and trying to take care of two children, so you moved in with your mother. She cared for the kids for awhile, but then began showing signs of strange behavior. You feared for your kids, your mother and yourself. "What have I gotten myself into?" You thought.

Many people are facing the fact that their sweet intentions have taken a sour turn. Certainly, for some, the decision to cohabitate with their elders works out fine. Two or even three generations residing in the same home can work. It can work when there is plenty of space so that everyone has some degree of privacy. It can work when there is respect for one another and a place to go when one has had enough family time. It can work when there is plenty of cooperation, planning beforehand and even some respite care for the elder, should that be needed.

Reality bites. For the vast majority (and I have no statistics, but am going by mail I've received from people asking for help, plus the very active forum here on, things may start off okay, but they steadily go downhill. People feel hemmed in by a deathbed promise, or a promise made to a parent who was once in good health. They feel hemmed in by the financial needs of all generations. They feel hemmed in by guilt.

How Caregivers Can Change Their Living Situations

What do you do when you are in such a situation and want to get out?

A lot depends, of course, on why you are in the situation in the first place. Most caregivers intend the best for the people they are caring for. They don't go to classes to find out how to navigate the elder care system, the financial burdens, the Medicare and Medicaid mazes. They take on the responsibility out of love and/or need. Or they are in such a state themselves, with dependent children and no job or money that they move in with a parent – even an abusive parent – and don't know how to get away.

If you are in a sticky situation, but one where finances have been kept separate and a lot of planning and forethought went into it, your main problem is guilt. You promised to make this work, but dementia or just plain stubborn behavior on the part of the elder, is putting a strain on your marriage. It's time to let go of the guilt and make other arrangements. It's time to acknowledge that you did your best, and now you will, promise or not, talk with the elder and explore options such as assisted living, or if necessary, a nursing home. You lived up to the spirit of the promise. You tried. Now, it's time to move on.

However, if you are in one of the stickier situations; one where you went into it in good faith, but the mingled living patterns and money patterns have become a financial and emotional nightmare, you may need legal help to get it straightened out. An estate attorney or elder attorney may be needed. I know, that's expensive, and in these cases the cost may prohibit hiring your own attorney. You may have to go through state legal aid. But if you are in this type of situation, you need professional help to sort though the options – financial, legal and moral – so you can get on with your life.

The sooner you get the financial situation straightened out, the sooner you will be able to make other decisions. What belongs to Mom? What belongs to you and the kids? What kind of care can you get for Mom while you work at a job that not only gets you some financial independence, but temporarily gets you away from your mom's bad temper? What kind of help do you need for your kids? Do they need counseling because they are too young to understand the verbal abuse handed out by a once loving grandparent who now has Alzheimer's? Do you need help from social services or your kids?

In many instances you will need to contact social services in order to get help for the elder. In the process, if the situation is bad enough for your children, they may be able to help you find separate living quarters.

It would be wonderful if someone could wave a magic wand and fix the problem. Make Mom well. Get you a good job so you could move out. Have your kids totally understand the confusing nature of their lives, without professional help.

But that's not realistic. The kids may need counseling. You my need it too. Perhaps, you can still cohabitate with your elder, but you will need to have help doing it. Or perhaps you need help getting out of the mess you are in. Whatever the case, living in a situation that everyone hates is not doing anyone any good. Not you. Not the elder. Not your children. The only way out is through. That means anxiety, work and determination. But you can do it. It's the only way your life will change for the better.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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