Subscribe to Christianity Today
My father turns seventy this year, and my mother has survived breast cancer. While they are both still vigorous enough to chase grandkids around for an entire day, their aging is becoming a more frequent topic of discussion among our family. During one conversation about their eventual plans to move to a retirement home and possible need for nursing care, I must have looked bewildered. "What's wrong?" my father asked. "Oh, Valerie still doesn't think you and Ruth are going to die," my husband chimed in—not unkindly, but (my apologies) dead right. Youth's parents are, apparently, as immortal as youth itself.
For thirtysomethings like me, not yet the meat of the sandwich generation but no longer the bottom slice of bread either, Virginia Stem Owens' new book, Caring for Mother: A Daughter's Long Goodbye, is a possibly unwelcome but valuable portent of things to come. An unflinching account of Owens' seven years spent caring for her mother, who suffered from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, Caring for Mother reads like a map of the territory we may be about to enter. If aging is indeed "Another Country," as the title of psychologist Mary Pipher's book on aging suggests, then caregiving for the elderly is like hiking alongside our loved ones in a foreign land. Death is certain, Owens writes, but the process of dying is an "open, anxious space where we set up camp, uncertain how long we'll be there."
Owens' story begins when her mother is suffering from Parkinson's but is still mostly lucid and living at home. Gradually, however, her hallucinations increase in frequency, and Owens grapples with how to respond to her mother's conviction that men have broken into their attic and that tar is seeping through the floor. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Owens moves into a house down the street from her parents and spends the next seven years taking her parents to doctors' appointments and helping her mother move into a nursing home, where she lives for five more years. ...