Late night calls are the worst. Mine came all the way from Shanghai, China, where my parents live part of the year. My dad’s voice was faint, halting. He told me quickly that my mom had fallen and broken her leg and he was with her in the hospital right now. She would need surgery. Could I leave Los Angeles and go to Shanghai within the week?
My parents, both retired, were in basic good health but before leaving for Shanghai, my mom had had persistent nerve pain in her left hip and also back pain. She was also slightly overweight, and learned in the course of trying to find a treatment for the back pain that one of her legs was slightly shorter than the other. Her tumble in the living room of the Shanghai apartment fractured her femur near her hip.
I thought about the impossibility of jumping on a plane in the middle of the fall school semester, and how my in-laws, usually so helpful, were also away. My spouse and child would have to rearrange their lives for a month. If I were a single parent, I’m not sure what I would’ve done.
And then I realized, if I didn’t go, I wouldn’t forgive myself. Falls in the elderly can be very dangerous. Physiological barriers to recovery aside, the potential loss of mobility (confinement to a wheelchair, permanent difficulty walking, and so on) can mark a slide to diminished independence and emotional fallout.
When I arrived in Shanghai, my mom had just underwent surgery in which two titanium rods and a dozen screws of the same material were implanted into her leg to permanently support the broken femur. She would essentially be bed-bound for the next 6 months as she slowly recovered and underwent physical therapy.
And so began my 16 hour days of caring for my mom — a taste of what long-term caregivers experience for as indefinitely long as they’re needed.
6:00 am: medication that needed to be taken on an empty stomach
7:00 am: medication that needed to be taken right before eating
7:30 am: breakfast
8:00 am: morning hygiene routine
9:00 am: morning doctor’s rounds
10:00 am: medications
10:30 am: mid-morning physical therapy, TENS
12:30 pm: hygiene break
1:00 pm: medication, short nap
2:00 pm: more physical therapy, acupuncture
3:00 pm: medication
3:30 pm: therapeutic massage
4:00 pm: pre-dinner medication
5:30 pm: dinner
6:00 pm: post-dinner hygiene
7:00 pm: medication
8:00 pm: play games or otherwise chitchat
9:00 pm: evening medications
10 pm bedtime
But far from it being a time of tedium and bedpans, punctuated by periodic visits of hospital staff, it turned into some of the best time I’ve ever spent with my mother. We gossiped about the young nurses and physical therapists. We discussed the ins and outs of the low-salt, special diabetic Chinese food diet. We watched Shanghainese soap operas on tv. We talked how she was doing in reaching her milestones. We fielded visits from those kind enough to stop by and say hello. I spent a month with her, supporting my dad and giving him some much needed time away from the rehab hospital. I helped them set up the nurse’s aide in the hospital and also for later, when they finally moved home for the last few weeks before they returned to the U.S. I helped them to make sure they had enough medications, and wrestled with insurers and other bureaucratic details. In the U.S., I made sure their bills were paid and checked on their house.
My mother’s story had a happy ending: she went home, able to walk again. She’s sometimes in need of a wheelchair for long distances, but indoors, she’s ultimately able to walk without a cane. I am grateful for the wonderful rehab hospital where she recovered with expert, warm care. The staff was wonderful. I am tremendously grateful that we had a nurse’s aide to help with two person tasks, like washing my mom’s hair or shifting her to make sure she didn’t get bed sores.
And I know how extremely lucky we were that my mother didn’t suffer cognitive or other permanent losses. So my heart really goes out to caretakers who don’t have a major milestone to the care that they give. Theirs is a constant, watchful process, with heartbreaking decline, or sometimes only stasis at best in the cards. Yet care must be given — on holidays, at all hours, any time there is a need. It is physically demanding and intellectually challenging work — who can remember the complex mix of medications, each with their own instructions and varying degrees of health consequences, for more than one person? And very often, it is low-paying or unpaid work.
All of these realizations became clearer to me after my time with my mother. And so, it was with much empathy I wanted to blog in support of WeGiveACare.org’s effort to highlight the work caregivers do. For the future, they’d like to build support for a Caregiver Credit that would count toward accumulating Social Security benefits for people who step away from full-time jobs in order to care for children, the elderly, or others in a time of need. I was keenly aware of the safety net I had of family and friends, and the paid staff who helped my mom heal. But I also knew that if I had to take care of my aging parents on a long-term basis, I’d be walking away from part-time employment. While acting as the safety net for my parents, would I be risking my own Social Security?
I know my eyes were opened after my personal experience, and I’m hoping that mindfulness of the important work we do to keep others around us healthy and thriving will be the first step to acknowledging the universal need to care and be cared for.
As you mull all the things you are thankful for today, include a caregiver on your list of people to thank. Chances are you’ll be needed for, and will need, a ride on that universal carousel.