Caring For Aging Relative: 'To Give Her A Good Life'
Part of the Family Matters series
Over the last two months, NPR's Morning Edition has been following three families who make up the growing number of multigenerational households in this country. All became multigenerational unexpectedly, when elderly relatives could no longer live independently and the families took them in.
The finances, logistics and emotions can be overwhelming. NPR's David Greene brought caregivers from all three families together to share their experiences.
Despite different income levels, not one of the three women said their families would put their parent, or in one case a grandparent, into a nursing home.
"Eventually I will have to get a hospital bed," said Geneva Hunter, of Odenton, Md., when asked about her 89-year-old mother, Ida. "But I'm always thinking what to do to make her more comfortable for her. I think if she passed away today, I can look at myself and say that I did the best I could to make it comfortable for her, to give her a good life. She did her best for me, and I want to do the best for her."
Earlier in our series, an expert from the Pew Research Center called multigenerational households an "unofficial anti-poverty program."
Natasha Shamone-Gilmore, of Capitol Heights, Md., says the costs of living and education are forcing people to live together. Her 24-year-old son Nicholas lives with her and her husband, along with her 81-year-old dad. "My son wants a degree, but unfortunately when I was a young mom I didn't put aside a college fund," Shamone-Gilmore said. "But still, even if I tried to make a monthly payment plan I can't today because I have mom, dad and my brother as a financial responsibility."
All three women say they would advise other families to save early, set up a college fund and establish good communication among family members.
Still, while it's important to save for the future, there is something to be said for enjoying the present. LaDonna Martin is a mother of two young teens in Harrisburg, Pa., who cares for her husband's 87-year-old grandmother in her home. She says her husband has a different attitude because his mother died in her early 50s. "My husband ever since then he has been, like, 'Life is too short.' If he wants to go on vacation he wants to go. Not that we don't save, but you never know what tomorrow is going to bring."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
Over the last two months, we've been hearing regularly from three families on this program. They have some things in common. There's an elderly loved one struggling with disease or old age, or both; a younger generation is providing care in the home; an even younger generation is pitching in; and each family regularly faces tough decisions about money.
MONTAGNE: Our series is called "Family Matters." Today, we hear from the middle generation - one member of each family balancing family needs as well as their own.
GREENE: Geneva Hunter from Odenton, Maryland, and Natasha Shamone-Gilmore from Capitol Heights, Maryland, are with me in the studio. Welcome to you both, and thanks for coming in.
NATASHA SHAMONE-GILMORE: Thank you.
GENEVA HUNTER: Thank you for having us.
GREENE: And LaDonna Martin is on the line from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. LaDonna, welcome to you.
LADONNA MARTIN: Thank you. (Unintelligible)
GREENE: I wondered if we could start with just an update from each of you, on the people you care for. Natasha, how's your dad doing?
SHAMONE-GILMORE: Dad's doing better but Dad still doesn't want to go out of the house to a center.
GREENE: An adult daycare center.
SHAMONE-GILMORE: An adult daycare center, yes. So he looks sad in the morning, as usual. But when I pick him up he's a whole different guy.
GREENE: And he has dementia, we should say.
SHAMONE-GILMORE: Yes, he does. He has early stage of dementia.
GREENE: Geneva, how is your mom, Ida Christian, doing?
HUNTER: Mom's doing great. She did have her defibrillator replaced and she came through with flying colors. She is having issues with swallowing, which is a part of the latter stages of Alzheimer's. But overall she's doing extremely well.
GREENE: LaDonna, tell me about grandma. Tell me about Snutzie.
MARTIN: Grandma's actually doing well. Luckily, she, you know, has her mind, so we don't have that problem. Hers is more physical - getting around. But she's doing well.
GREENE: I want to turn to a sort of difficult question that I want to ask all of you. But, Geneva, your daughter, Yolanda, 43, she gave up her career - her life, in many ways, for two years to be the daytime caregiver for your mom. At what point does your role as a child in taking care of a parent compete with your role as a parent, and taking care of the younger generation?
HUNTER: Tough question.
SHAMONE-GILMORE: It is tough.
HUNTER: That's a tough question.
HUNTER: My daughter is a fantastic individual. I encourage her to continue to seek employment and we're always thinking and planning what will happen once she finds a job. We've had to make decisions together. We sit up all night in hospitals together. We've decided on what's the next step to take. And I don't know what I would have done without her. She has been my caregiver...
HUNTER: ...in so many ways.
GREENE: And LaDonna, let me ask you that question - the real balancing act. We have a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. You are taking care of your husband's grandmother. I mean do you ever feel like you're giving a little bit too much time to an older generation and kind of not there for your kids as much as you'd like to be?
MARTIN: I mean not that I'm feel like a giving her too much, 'cause I, you know, I would do anything for her. I do sometimes feel guilty that I'm not there enough for my own kids. But it's your family and that's what you do - or that's how I was raised.
MARTIN: You know, that that's what you do.
MARTIN: And I think we all feel the same way. It's about family.
GREENE: I wonder if you think about when the breaking point might come. And LaDonna, you told me a few weeks ago that, you know, if Grandma - if Snutzie falls or breaks a hip at some point, that might be the moment when you say, you know, we just can't take care of you. We live in a two-story house. We can't take that much time away from our kids.
And how have you prepared for conversation like that?
MARTIN: We say that to her. Do I truly think I could do it? I guess essentially I don't know what we would do. We would try our best. We would probably, you know, get a hospital bed and try 24-hour care. Truly, no one does the care that you would do for your own family. They just don't. So it's tough.
GREENE: Sounds like it's the kind of conversation you could think about in theory, but it's a lot more difficult to actually carry out.
MARTIN: It is.
GREENE: And Geneva, watching someone with Alzheimer's is something unimaginable. I mean it's - I wonder, if the disease progresses, if a point will come, if she loses more of her faculties, if you start thinking about is it worth it for me to have sleepless nights, is it worth it to make sure she has 24-hour care in the home, or is their breaking point where we say, you know, it's time for her to live outside the home?
HUNTER: It's worth it to me to have her with me, even when she doesn't know who I am. The toughest thing for me to face lately was - her doctor said to me, you know, one day you're going to have to decide to take the batteries out of her pacemaker. And I told him, I said, I think we'll know when it's time to have those batteries removed.
I think eventually I will have to get a hospital bed. But I'm always thinking about what to do to make it more comfortable for her. I think if she passed away today, I could look at myself and say that I did the best that I could.
She did her best for me. I want to do my best for her.
GREENE: Natasha, what could see as your breaking point when you have a make a big decision about not being able to keep things as they are?
SHAMONE-GILMORE: Well, we have a small joke. My husband always says if your dad hits you, that's it. Because we've heard that sometimes with that disease they could be violent. So I say, no, dad's not going, we're gonna just deal with it. We're gonna deal with it as best as we can.
GREENE: Look forward for me if you all can. Geneva, let me ask you, where do you see things in a year or so?
HUNTER: Well, I think I'm gonna be faced with some very tough decisions. I've already checked into hospice and things of that nature, so we have an idea what to do when the time comes, but I will still have my mom with me. I'm not going to allow her to be taken anywhere else until that time comes.
SHAMONE-GILMORE: And with me, my mother-in-law just passed with Alzheimer's, so it's almost like that prepared me for what I'm to expect with dad. I've just been promoted. My employer is aware...
SHAMONE-GILMORE: Thank you - is aware. They were so gracious before, and I'm hoping that even with this promotion, which means, of course, more duty and more responsibility, and so we are just standing by as a family prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the family together, no matter what.
GREENE: The amazing thing about telling your stories is the listeners who have written in and shared their own stories and said they appreciate learning about their own financial decisions from what you've been through. And I guess I wonder if there's one piece of advice you could offer to someone in your situation after sort of living through this, what would it be? Ladonna?
MARTIN: Save early.
MARTIN: Save your money. Do a college fund and...
HUNTER: Yeah. Wow, I know, I wish.
MARTIN: ...you know, to have that extra.
GREENE: Natasha, one piece of advice?
SHAMONE-GILMORE: I think family needs to educate one another. My family never told us about, you know, life insurance, never told us about long-term care. Just educate one another on all of your options. I'm trying to educate the young people now in our family that we have an inheritance, it's us. We have roundtable talks at home. We talk about everything that's going on, and I show them everything that's going on. I say these are the books, what would you do if I wasn't here.
GREENE: I remember your table. You were showing me...
SHAMONE-GILMORE: Yeah. Yeah. All that stuff.
GREENE: ...where those conversations...
SHAMONE-GILMORE: Everything - you've got to learn it. You've got to learn it all. You've got to learn it.
GREENE: Geneva, one piece of advice on your mind?
HUNTER: I'm going to say two things. I know I'm only supposed to say one.
GREENE: It's okay. You're allowed.
HUNTER: But I think saving is critical. The second thing would be communication. If you know that a disease runs in the family, you may not get it but someone else in the family may get it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Exactly.
HUNTER: And you have to be educated in order to take care of the person appropriately.
GREENE: I cannot thank the three of you enough for joining us today, and I can't thank the three of you enough for sharing your families and your stories.
HUNTER: Thank you.
SHAMONE-GILMORE: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Thank you.
GREENE: LaDonna Martin lives with her family in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Geneva Hunter in Odonton, Maryland; and Natasha Shamone-Gilmore in Capitol Heights, Maryland. It's our series Family Matters, and you can hear all of our stories and see some really powerful pictures of the families by NPR photographer Kainaz Amaria, all at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.