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Virginia Stem Owens

What Shall We Do With Mother?

One day a year or so ago, my father found my mother lying on the bedroom floor where she had fallen while tucking in a sheet. Her collarbone, they discovered at the emergency room, had snapped when she fell, an entirely predictable consequence of her combined ailments—Parkinson's disease and osteoporosis. Something else appeared to have broken in my mother as well, however. Confused and fearful, she took to wandering from room to room at night, looking for intruders. My father, 80 years old and profoundly deaf, felt helpless to deal with the rapidly deteriorating circumstances of their lives.

Since then, my husband and I have moved back to Texas and now live just down the road from my parents. During the past nine months, my father has had three operations, including a triple by pass. Between the two of them, they have seen a total of 12 different doctors over the past year. I have become an expert at reading medical billings, insurance claims, and Medicare statements. My computer's Web browser is bookmarked for a number of disease and medication sites. The learning curve for me has been Matterhorn-steep, however. At first I didn't even know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid.

My parents are scrupulous people who wanted to cause their children as little trouble as possible. Since I am the executor of their wills, they long ago gave me copies, as well as a key to their safety deposit box. They made sure I knew where to find their insurance policies. I was present when they planned and paid for their funerals. We had all prepared for death. What we hadn't prepared for was decline. I soon found that I needed a crash course in what is al most as inevitable as death—caring for aging parents. Kubler-Ross may have taught my generation the five stages of grief, but no one had told us about the long good-bye.

Nor was I alone in facing this largely ignored crisis ignorant and unarmed. Just last night, for in stance, my friend Ted called me from Pennsylvania. ...

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