Monday, December 22, 2008

The Continuing Struggle to Parent a Parent

I am grateful that our experience with a Manor Care facility was so different from that which our North Carolina neighbor is experiencing. When my mother was getting ready to be transferred from Ocean Beach Hospital (where I was unhappy with her care) to Manor Care, Gig Harbor, the nurses emphasized the importance of my going to the facility on a regular basis which is one of the reasons we chose Manor Care in the first place. It was closer to us. Her ambulance ride the 150 miles from Ocean Beach hospital to Manor Care in Gig Harbor ended up being more than $2,000, but would have been worth every penny even if Medicare and insurance had not largely paid for it.

As an only child I don’t have siblings to help shoulder the responsibilities of my aging mother and can feel helpless at times witness our current weather situation and the fact that my mother fell twice on Saturday. My husband has enough brothers that they have committees! If you have an aging parent who doesn’t live nearby getting support for both of you is extremely important. I have had to ask questions and mine out the little services that make my mother’s life and therefore my life easier.

If you live at long distance with a parent in a care facility it is best if there is a sibling or cousin who can look in on your parent on a regular basis. Patients with family, or friends acting as family, who pay attention to the care they are receiving get better care no matter how good or bad the facility is. I was at Manor Care everyday, sometimes oftener, and my kids visited, too. I took my mother’s laundry home to wash so things would not go missing. This level of attention was exhausting when tacked onto what I do each day as a working mother of an adult daughter with special needs, but it was worth it since it was only for six weeks and not forever. That level of attention would have been difficult to maintain long term and would have required me leaning more heavily on my children. Lastly, if you have concerns about the care a loved one is receiving; contact the facility’s social worker. We found the folks in that office at Manor Care to be extremely helpful in creating a plan to get my mother ready to return to her normal life. A phone call is clearly not the same thing as being on scene, but it will demonstrate that someone is paying attention to how things are going for the patient.

I felt that the staff at Manor Care, Gig Harbor was wonderful. I met no one who did not seem concerned and committed to helping my mother be able to return to living as independently as possible since she’s resistant to assisted living at this time. As a Special Education educator and parent I know the importance of least restrictive environment, but I also know how difficult it is to look after a parent from far away. We are constantly finding bumps in the road that have to be dealt with. Just this weekend my mother fell twice in one day. We are in the midst of a snow storm here in the NW and it is impossible for me to get there or I would have already brought her here for Christmas. Fortunately, in the Spring I got her a Senior Security System and it has been invaluable as she’s gone through two serious infections that she had not reported to anyone until too sick to walk properly and a few simple falls from which she could not get up.

Before I committed to Senior Security I did a little investigating on the Internet. We’ve all seen the Life Alert commercials (“I’ve fallen and can’t get up.”) on television, but I read some poor reviews of that company and warnings to find one that would not lock you into a long term contract. Although we hope our loved one will need the service for years and years the fact is that if you’re looking for a medical security system it is possible that you will lose that family member and don’t want to be left paying on a contract for a system no longer needed.

When my mother returned to her apartment from her hospitalization in June she came with more medications than she was accustomed to taking. She also seemed a little more frail and confused as a result of the staph infection she’d survived. Because it was summer and I was off from work and staying at our nearby summer home I was able to dole out her medications and get her back on her feet. I knew that if she were to stay in her own apartment that we needed a way for her to take medications without getting confused so I purchased enough pill strips to fill and do her between my visits which generally speaking are every two weeks during the school year.

In September my mother felt fit enough and competent enough to fill her own pill strips and was very proud of this accomplishment. This points out how difficult it is for people to lose control over their lives. This small achievement made her so happy and pleased me because I believed it to be proof that she was returning to her old self. Shortly after this my mother developed a serious urinary infection which resulted in a high temperature and confusion. Fortunately, because I have a cousin nearby whom Senior Security contacted when I could not be reached at school, who went over and realized that my mother’s falling was something more than clumsiness. We got her to consent to going to the hospital where she spent another week and then needed the rehabilitation at Manor Care.

When my mother’s rehabilitation at Manor Care was over and I returned her to her apartment in Ilwaco I discovered that the medications in her pill strips were not correct. Bump in the road. She had not achieved all that she thought. Knowing that my visits are sometimes less regular during the Winter due to storms and ice, I became concerned about her taking medications. That is when I learned that the pharmacy in her community will blister pack medications for the elderly for a mere $4 per month! I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders and I realized that neither my mother nor I would have to be responsible for making sure she took the correct dosage.

Equipment for the elderly has been another bump in the road to independence. I am still learning what is and what is not paid for by Medicare. My mother came home from Manor Care with a lovely walker, much better than one a neighbor had given her and paid for by Medicare, but they don’t pay for shower chairs. The social worker at Manor Care had suggested checking Goodwill before spending large amounts of money at Costco or a pharmacy. I’ve found Goodwill to be a wonderful resource for such equipment. In addition there are organizations that recycle equipment at no cost in some communities. If you have a senior assistance center (another invaluable resource for learning about prescription insurance) in your parent’s community contact them. They will know who does that sort of thing as well as where to get home-health services and a assistance in getting around the community. My most important piece of equipment in caring for my mother is my cell phone. Being able to call her at least once a day is my best way of keeping on top of what is happening with her.

Lastly, to paraphrase Blanche DuBois in Street Car Named Desire, ask for the help of strangers. It is not in my nature to ask for help, but my concern for my mother has crumbled my pride and opened me to blessings I could not have imagined. I still rely largely on myself, but have discovered that the corner grocer will take my mother groceries when the roads are too bad for her to go out or me to get to her. There is an organization in my mother’s community who will shop for her or take her shopping, but if you don’t qualify for Medicaid (which thanks to eight years of poor social services my mother does not) you have to pay $19 per hour, more than my mother can afford on a regular basis. Be creative. Ask questions. If you’re at a long distance contact a senior center or senior assistance office in your parent’s community.

There are still things I don't understand such as why I can receive Care Provider money to care for my special needs child, but my friend in Oregon cannot get the same thing for caring for her father and cannot find a competent provider. The struggle continues on a daily basis.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Voluntary Simplicity

Confessions of a Packrat
The notion of “voluntary simplicity” in connection with me seems crazy. Simplicity is not one of my characteristics. Packrat is. I come from a long line of packrats. My mother has a T-shirt that says “I’m not a packrat, I’m a collector.” We have to be forgiven. My mother was raised in a house that not only contained her parents’ trumpery, but her grandmother’s as well.

Many afternoons were spent by my cousin and me exploring our grandmother’s basement and the trunks that contained generations of interesting clothing and artifacts. Grandma Mills gave us leave to poke around all we liked except for the trunk which contained the belongings of our mothers’ brother. The uncle we would never know in this life had been thrown from a horse in front of a truck and killed at age thirteen and obtained instant sainthood in the minds of our grandparents and to the confusion of his preschool age sisters. I am now the keeper of many of Austin’s things, including a cigar box almost identical even to the contents to the one in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m not about to get rid of them, but I do consider myself a recovering packrat.

I’m not as bad as some family members who could probably benefit from medication. One relative sobbed over lunch one day, “My neighbor died and her husband had a dumpster in front of the house before I knew what was happening. I just know Pat will do that if I die first.” You think? This woman has trails through her house of stuff. Not only do I not want to be her, I want to create a life that is less cluttered physically and emotionally. We hang on to things for a variety of reasons. I’m trying to let go.

Before the lazy days of Summer were abruptly ended by the realization that we were free falling into an economic recession, I had obtained a copy of Dominguez & Robin’s Your Money or Your Life. Reading it and getting serious about creating new patterns of living became imperative. The philosophy behind the book and what has become the voluntary simplicity movement is not a budget, but a different way of consuming and living and seems to be the perfect reading material for a season generally given up to conspicuous consumption and perfect for making New Year’s resolutions.

Your Money or Your Life is about figuring out what “enough” looks like. I’m working on that. I have already figured out what “too much” looks like. It is about living simply so that other may simply live and walking gently through this life and Earth.

With snow and ice slowing down the pace of life I have been able to focus on organizing some things with an eye to paring down my entirely too large pile and beginning afresh with a New Year. It is a mighty task I’ve set upon for I’ve been collecting for more years than I would like to admit to. It may well take me all of 2009 to get to where I’d like to be, but it’s the journey that counts so I keep plugging away at eliminating things and accounting for every penny of my money. This time next year I hope to have less stuff and more financial independence.

You’ll have to excuse me now. I’ve got to get back to creating the life I want to have.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Your Money or Your Life

I know I have enough. Despite the fact that my husband’s job will end sometime between now and the end of next year I know we can make it and if I didn’t buy one more “thing” I’d be fine. My Christmas wish list says specifically nothing that requires dusting or feeding, but includes time with my children and only consumable things like candles and incense.

So for my continuing process of discovering what is “enough” and working the Your Money or Your Life program I’ve sent for a copy of my earnings statement from Social Security. I know our financial advisor has one and I could call and ask him how much I’ve earned in my lifetime, but I want one of my own. They come each year as a birthday gift from the government and since I’ve never had a high paying job I find them depressing to look at, but in the spirit of working the program I will truly examine it when it comes in an effort to see my financial worth although I realize that this is not my worth as a human being.

I know that between us, my husband and I have assets enough that we ought not to become a burden to the children although we will never live in luxury, but I think we can do better which will include in divesting ourselves of a lot of stuff that we’ve collected along the way. I am planning a big trip to Goodwill. This morning I pulled more Amy-never-wears-clothes out of her room. When shopping for her last weekend my husband had said, “Amy, you have to get rid of an item for each one you are getting.” We have probably eliminated five for each item she got.

Paring down our pile will probably take the three years we’ve set for ourselves in which to get ready to relocate to the coast. We spent a collective 114 years acquiring it, but each bag that goes out the door is a step closer to our goal of living simply and reaching financial security.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Literally weeks before the stock market beginning its downward free fall this year I had ordered a used copy of Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Voluntary Simplicity is something I had a rudimentary knowledge of and thrift and I are old friends, but I have entirely too much stuff even if most of it was acquired from thrift stores and garage sales. My New Year’s resolution will be not only to see how little money I can spend and how much debt we can pay off, but to pare down our pile. We could not sell our house and move to the coast right now if the economy was great. There’s no way that all our junk that fills a five bedroom suburban house will fit into a three bedroom country Victoria. Besides, I do not want to leave a mountain of things for my children to dispose of someday. Instead of having them get a dumpster, I am making trips to Goodwill. Figuring out what “enough” looks like is a central theme in Your Money.

So I’m beginning my journey already. Because my daughter recently got some new clothing this morning I began going through her dresser and closets, pulling out things she hasn’t worn in ages and bagged them up for Goodwill. We are planning a chicken coop and a vegetable garden for Spring which should add to our table and entertainment.

I will be reporting on my successes and failures and I invite your stories about what you’re doing to save money and simplify your life.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Do You Know What's in Your Parents' Safety Deposit Box?

Recently, Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” aired an act about a woman whose job it is to dispose of the “estates” of Chicago citizens who die alone with no family to even claim the body. What would it be like to spend your days going through the possession of strangers, people who lived and died alone, and dispose of their things? The program examined what we leave behind for others to deal with. If we are lucky we have loved ones to whom we will things.
Recently I had cause to go through my 86 year old mother’s papers. I didn’t find any million dollar life insurance policies or stocks or bonds, but I did find things that in their own way were amazing. Good thing she was still around to ask questions, but even she was baffled by some of it.

We found letters from insurance companies about policies that had been purchased years ago. Most of them she couldn’t remember; didn’t even know what I was talking about when I asked her. Mutual of Oregon? CNA? Academy Life? Safeco? There was only one actual policy and it was for $700, not $200.

I found an ad for an opthamologist who Mother can't remember and the pin number for Mother's ATM card, just in case she forgot the number.

“Mother,” I said as I was going through the huge stack, “do you do your monthly breast exam at the bank?”

She frowned. “No, why?”

“Well,” I said, beginning to titter. “Care to venture a guess about how this got into the safety deposit box.” I held up my finger from which dangled a card similar to the cards with the keyhole one hangs on a motel door requesting privacy or cleaning only this one contained a diagram for doing a self breast exams. Jo and my mother began to laugh, too, and we laughed until tears ran down our faces.

Nearly the last item I came across was an agreement with the University of Oregon for my mother’s body to go to their medical school. “They will give you ashes when they’re done,” my mother said. “All you have to do is get me to Portland.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?” I asked.

“Just throw me in the back of a van and drive me.”

“If they want you, they can come get you. I’m not driving you around when you're dead.”

“I don’t think you can drive a body around without some sort of special license,” Jo said.

“Oh, pooh,” said Mother. “Just throw me in a van.”

“I don’t have a van. I’d have to rent one. Do you think Hertz would approve? Besides, wouldn’t it involve taking a body across state lines?” I asked laughing again.

My mother still insists that we can just prop her in the backseat. After I had taken my mother home for the night with her honey-do list of phone calls to make regarding insurance policies and Jo & I were getting ready for bed I said, “You’d do it with me, wouldn’t you?” I said.

“Yes, I would,” she smiled.

“Well, it’s nice to know someone who’d help you move a body,” I said and we laughed.

So, when’s the last time you looked in your parents safety deposit box or talked about what’s going to happen when they pass on? I don’t suggest it for a Thanksgiving celebration, but better to get surprised now than wait until it’s too late for clarification.

I had much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. The one that surprised me is that I’m thankful to have a friend who would help me drive a body 120 miles. Everyone should have at least one friend who would do that.