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Cathy Free: Free Lunch: Caring for parents was the call of a lifetime for a dedicated son

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14 2012 12:06 p.m. MST

David Campbell, left, helped care for his father, Ernest, for more than 16 years.

Photo courtesy of David Campbell

SALT LAKE CITY — David Campbell always knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he never expected this.

No wonder he was exhausted when he climbed into bed. One night, he was running a bath for his two giggling toddlers and the next he was kneeling over the bathtub with a sponge to clean his elderly father.

“The reversal of roles was such a shock — I never thought that at my age, I’d be a caregiver,” he says. “I didn’t know that I had it in me, but now when I look back, it has defined who I am. Although it was stressful and sometimes frustrating, it was also rewarding. I wouldn’t trade those last years with my father for anything.”

Four years after his dad, Ernest “Colonel” Campbell, died at age 92 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease, David strolls into his Sugar House office and opens a binder full of papers that he calls his “lifeline.”

So many people asked him for advice after he cared for his father, and earlier, his mother (Thora Campbell died of a brain tumor), that Campbell decided to organize 16 years’ worth of notes and devote the rest of his life to helping others cope with the challenges of helping loved ones through their twilight years.

“Every tragedy in our lives has the seeds for an equal or greater benefit,” he says, “and because of what I went through, I feel I now have something to give. I have a sense of purpose now. I want people to know that if I can get through this, they can, too.”

Campbell, 50, who gives presentations about aging and is writing a book called “God Please Help Me, My Parents are Moving In,” wanted to get together for a Free Lunch of takeout turkey sandwiches and lemonade to share his story during National Family Caregivers Month.

Twenty-four years ago, when his elderly parents lost their home and all their savings in a family court battle and had to move in with him and his wife, “I had two young children, ages 1 and 2, and one on the way,” recalls Campbell, who was running his own life insurance agency at the time.

What was most surprising, he says, is that when his parents developed health problems, “they became like my biggest children, requiring the most time, the most money and the most emotional support. I never expected that.”

The stress of caring for his parents contributed to two divorces and financial woes, but with time and patience, Campbell got through it, remembering how his mom and dad had taken in his grandparents when he was young.

“They lived with us for 12 years and I had some wonderful times with them, especially my grandpa,” he says. “He’s the one who took me to get my hair cut after school, took me fishing and encouraged me to be curious and develop new ideas. Those experiences stayed with me my whole life.”

After caring for his mom for 12 years and his dad for 16, Campbell was involved in a serious car accident that left him with a brain injury and memory problems. Unable to keep up with daily tasks at the office, he had to quit the insurance business and sell most of his belongings.

“It was a low point, but I knew that nobody could take what I’d done for my parents away from me,” he says. “I still had that and I knew it had made me a better person.”

Last year, encouraged by friends who had witnessed his devotion to his parents, he decided to channel what he’d learned into helping others facing the same end-of-life issues.

“There is nothing more difficult than becoming a caregiver, but also nothing more rewarding,” he says. “The problem is that too many people fail to plan for it. If you keep the end in mind and decide how you want that end to be, you can make your parents’ last years happy for everyone. And when the time comes, you will have no regrets.”

For more information contact ItsNever2LateLLC@gmail.com.

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.

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