My friend is struggling with decisions about how best to care for his elderly mother.

Right now, she's living with him and his wife, but the blending of two households hasn't gone as smoothly as he'd hoped. The personalities are a little too different, the escalating needs of the octogenarian sometimes overwhelming.

Many of my friends are dealing with a variation of the same theme. And their situations are as unique as the individuals involved, driven in part by factors like finances and the physical layouts of their homes — not something most of us consider when we're out house hunting.

One bought a house across the street for her mother so they could keep tabs and help out but maintain independence. Another shopped for months for a good assisted-living apartment for her dad that will at least somewhat gracefully transition to more long-term care if it's needed.

I hear a lot of the stories because I've already made this journey. My parents died, a decade apart, each 80 at the time. Their senior years could not have been more different.

My father was a brilliant man who stayed sharp to the end, although his body started to unravel after a surgery. My mother was a funny, clever woman who, the last couple years of her life, had no idea who I was or where she was, the fog courtesy of Alzheimer's disease.

I hated to watch what time began to do to them. And I developed a plan for coping with it.

I decided I'd ignore it as long as possible. For a long time, I pretended my funny, bright mom was still my funny, bright mom, even when she started to call me at 3 a.m., thinking it was 3 p.m. (my mom was born blind, so visual cues like sunlight were worthless), to complain that imaginary children hadn't come back from rock climbing. Her confusion back then came and went, although it was coming more than going.

My family's reality check arrived the day Mom said she was tired; she was going to take a bath and go to bed early. There was nothing out of the ordinary about any of it, until the next day, when my sister Kath couldn't reach Mom by phone and went over to check on her.

She found her in the bath, which was really, really cold by that time, confused and bruised where she'd apparently slipped trying to get out and fallen back in again. She'd been in the tub about 20 hours. At the hospital, after checking to make sure that we weren't beating her (where did she get those bruises on her back?), a doctor said she could go home.

Kath and I refused to take her home until they figured out whether she'd had a stroke or what had happened. While they ran tests, we finally got busy coming up with a real plan.

My mother would, in fact, never set foot in her house again. She transitioned into long-term care where she'd have company and oversight. We visited routinely.

There's a lot of guilt involved in making winding-down decisions for someone else. I felt I should take her home with me, but it was never an option. A blind person with dementia in a multilevel where the adults work long hours and there are two toddlers underfoot just didn't make sense. We were already caring for my husband's mother, who was dying of cancer. My sister's situation was even more complicated, and my brothers were hundreds of miles away.

The worst part about all of it — not counting the painful moment when you have to admit the situation's deteriorating — was not knowing where to go for help or what all the options were.

Mom's been gone three years now, and I'm still collecting stories of how other people meet this challenge. I'll never know if we made right choices. I just know we did the best we could.


Deseret Morning News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]