Because she wanted to help someone who needed her, Emily Albert went to Calcutta to work with the lepers. In India, she met Mother Teresa, who sent her home.
In the gentlest way possible, Mother Teresa told Albert she wasn't needed. People in India need food, clothes and medicine, Mother Teresa explained. People in the United States need to learn to love one another. You abandon your children, Mother Teresa said. You abandon your old people.Albert says, "I had to take a deeper look at where I fit in. I had not only left a father I did not want to forgive, as my mother had asked me to do - but I left the country. Talk about abandonment."
Albert came back to Utah, continued to have some sporadic telephone conversations with her father in Pennsylvania - never suspecting that he was about to ask if he could come and live with her.
Pretty soon she married a man she'd been dating, a kind man named George Watson. Watson had already faced up to, and gotten over, the resentments he felt toward his own father. He was caring for his father, long-distance - flying back and forth to Ohio, handling his father's insurance and medical bills.
Years before, when her mother was dying, Emily's father abandoned his wife. Emily was still angry about his coldness. Her mother went to a nursing home, but Emily was with her when she died.
So George and Emily Watson each knew something about patience and taking care of a parent. Together, they learned more. When the time came, they found themselves caring for three elderly parents at once, all the while holding full-time jobs. To make things even more complicated, George and Emily both had cancer and underwent chemotherapy while they were caring for their parents.
They aren't completely unusual. In the United States today, 7 million elderly people are cared for at home. But unlike most caregivers who are just doing the best they can day-to-day, the Watsons studied the subject. By taking 22 credit hours of class and putting in 200 hours in a nursing home internship, each earned a gerontology certificate from the University of Utah.
They also kept journals. In the year since the last of their parents died, they wrote and published a book about their experiences. It's titled "The Calling."
"We don't mean to imply we know everything," said Emily. They never cared for an Alzheimer's patient. They don't know how it feels to be single and trying to take care of a parent. But they did do something difficult, and they did find it rewarding. They think their story is hopeful.
Their message is: You can do this, too. There are resources. You will find the patience you need. Even if your parent has to be in a nursing home, you can become a partner in the caregiving.
The Watsons brought their fathers into their home. George's mother stayed in her own home until the last few months of her life; still the Watsons helped her maintain her house and drove her where she needed to go.
They began their caregiving with a certain sadness. They thought the people who were their first teachers in life had nothing left to give. As it turned out, the Watsons continued to learn from their parents. One thing they learned was how to live as a family again, after many years.
It was fairly easy to arrange the furniture so that it offered support to an elderly person walking across the room. It was easy enough to remove thick carpets - which can trip up shuffling feet. Medicare and supplemental insurance and arranging for therapists to come into the home - all these details took time and attention but were not overwhelming.
It was the living together - cooking for someone with different tastes, answering complaints, avoiding manipulation and guilt, helping with medications and increasing frailty, cleaning up after bouts of incontinence, dealing with confusion and stubbornness, listening to a depressed old man talk of suicide - these were the emotional challenges.
The Watsons learned to say, "I know when I am your age, I am going to have the same limitations." That acknowledgment eased a lot of situations, from the embarrassment of a bathroom accident, to the frustration of having to use a cane or a walker.
One of the hardest lessons was to allow an older person the dignity of a decision. When accompanying Emily's father on a walk, George would say, "You will probably fall if you don't take your cane. But the decision is up to you."
They told their fathers, "Make yourself at home." But when they didn't want George's dad to change the angle of the television set, or didn't want to move the easy chair closer to the window, for Emily's dad, the invitation was contradicted, says Emily. "We were setting up boundaries."
One of the biggest lessons the Watsons learned was how to take help. Finally, they became accepting. When a neighbor or a church friend said, "What can I do?" they'd be ready with a specific suggestion: "Come sit with my father tomorrow night so we can go out."
No matter how busy they got, they took care of themselves. George played tennis at least three times a week. Emily read scriptures and meditated every day.
For the first three years her father lived with them, Emily's caregiving was purely mechanical. George was the one to give him hugs and foot rubs. But the father/daughter relationship eventually healed. Emily knew it would have made her mother glad.
The Watsons promised their parents they would be able to die at home. When the time came, with the help of hospice volunteers, they were able to keep their promise. They were there, at the bedside of each of the three parents, holding their hands at the moment of death.
Says Emily, The process of dying is our own process. Our parents are still teachers for us, right up to that point. If we are too afraid to be close to them in their old age, how can we learn?
Resources for the caregiver
The State Division of Aging and Adult Services, 583-3910
The Gerontology Center, University of Utah, 581-8198
Three of the latest books on caregiving are:
Saying Good-bye, You and your Aging Parents, by David Klein; Browntrout Publishers; 178 pages. $17.95
Stay close and Do Nothing, A spiritual and Practical Guide to Caring for the Dying at Home, by Merrill Collett; 230 pages. $22.95
The Calling, A Journey on the Path of Parent Care, by Goerge and Emily Watson; Agreka Books; 216 pages. In paperback, $14.95.