Being a good steward for someone with dementia is a huge responsibility. It takes energy and time to study the medical, legal, and economic questions that come with being a caregiver and/or power of attorney. Recent mistakes have also taught me that caregiver stress impairs intuition — a problem that can push you into making hasty decisions that lead to worse problems over time.
For the past ten days I’ve been struggling to resolve a crisis that arose because I was in a hurry to rent my mother’s old home. Mom’s care gets more expensive all the time and I was distracted by thoughts of the future, instead of ensuring that our tenant was 100% trustworthy. My instincts were shorted out by the stress of cleaning the property between snow and ice storms and interviewing potential renters while fulfilling usual duties.
In my haste to keep Mom’s income stream running, I let someone into our lives who did not belong there. We’re not perfect people, but my family’s values are rooted in a tradition of hard work and mutual respect for people in our orbit. The person who moved into my mom’s old home did not embrace that tradition. Shortly after entering our lives, the tenant began to break all promises made in the contract that launched our relationship. Things quickly went from bad to worse — making me hate myself for trusting a devious person with my mother’s sweet home.
We’ve always had good rental experiences in the past. In fact, I would say that we’ve enjoyed knowing former tenants and still think fondly of them. I don’t know how I overlooked or ignored the small signs that could have warned me away from this recent encounter. But I didn’t act on them, and ended up plagued with guilt over my failure to be a good steward of my mother’s interests.
The situation made me think about the number of times we serve as eyes and ears for our loved ones. We make so many medical and legal decisions on their behalf. Even something as basic as having an aide come in for a few hours of caregiver relief requires deep reflection since, after a certain point, they can’t tell us whether that person was kind, careful, or evil. It falls to us to stay sharp and aware for them. That’s not too hard when we are calm and focused. But caregiving often steals our clarity. During the last month, snow and ice made me feel like I was climbing Everest just to get Mom’s supplies from the pharmacy.
I feel very fortunate to be writing about this bad situation in the past tense. We took swift action and Mom’s home is secure once more. But it will take a while to straighten things out and get her financial ship headed back in the right direction. In the meantime, I’ve had to reflect on the nature of our true needs. Yes, Mom needs an income to help pay for her medical costs. But we can only afford to have people in our lives who share our values and merit our trust. Going forward, I need to summon more of the spirit of “Old Mom” and less of my frazzled self.
When my mom got sick, I knew I’d end up doing many things for her. In doctor’s offices we saw people with advanced cases of dementia that scared me. I had to stop myself from thinking about the future since it looked so bleak. But in addition to the jobs I expected to get stuck with, there were more I didn’t foresee. At this time of year they take up lots of my time.
Arctic cold filled our stream with isles of ice
- Fiscal Manager — It’s amazing how much many hours it takes to manage the details of my mother’s finances. When she told me many years ago that she had assigned me her Power of Attorney, I had no idea what that really meant. I also failed to realize how much of each week I’d spend paying her bills, keeping track of her insurance claims, and organizing her financial records. Doing it for yourself is something you get used to as you get older, but when you add the task of doing it for someone else, it starts to feel like a full time job. Sometimes I believe I am singlehandedly keeping the U.S. Post Office in business. (Though I know some of you are helping me!)
- Tax Accountant — As soon as the ball drops on New Years’ Eve, the tax year changes. That means I have to start putting together the receipts for filing my Mom’s tax returns. I hate doing my own taxes, mostly because I operate a business. I’d much rather write and do the work my clients ask from me than sort through transactions — doing the work the government demands from me. Paying taxes is something I accept as part of life. It comes along with stopping at red lights, doing laundry, and shoveling snow. But thank goodness I don’t need to keep a record of every time I hit the brakes or wash the sheets. It’s not the work, it’s the paperwork that kills me.
- Property Manager — My mom wasn’t rich, but she did own a home that sat empty after her health declined and she moved in with me. We realized that this asset shouldn’t remain vacant because it could generate income to pay for more intensive services she’d need as her disease advanced. For me, this has meant learning about leases, advertising for tenants, and figuring out how to choose responsible ones. It also meant that during last week’s arctic freeze, I had to drive an hour to interview new applicants, spend long afternoons cleaning the place, and rush home in howling winds. This is all part of the job of keeping a steady income stream there for my mother as her need for medical support rises.
When I write this list down, it actually looks pretty short. But as I carry out these responsibilities, they seem never ending. What I hate most about these jobs isn’t the hours they take away from my daily routine. I am far more resentful of the time they steal from my relationship with my mother. These are afternoons I’d prefer to spend in her sweet, childlike company. At this point, we don’t have a minute to squander. So I must remind myself that 2014 cannot be a year of drudgery. It needs to be a year of cherishing the moments still left to us.