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A Mother Caring for Her Mother

Kathryn Slattery's inspiring four tips for the "sandwich generation" caring for both parents and children.

By Kathryn Slattery, New Canaan, Connecticut


When my widowed mother first moved into the in-law apartment attached to our house, I wasn't so sure it was going to work out.

For as long as I could remember, "prickly" was the best way to describe our relationship. When I was a little girl, I remember thinking how my mother and I were like two negatively polarized magnets fighting an invisible force that pushed us apart.

I loved my mother, but we were different in so many ways. She was comfortable with clutter. I was a bit of a control freak. My idea of fun was alphabetizing the books in my bedroom, while my mother loved to spend the day shopping.

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My mother loved when friends stopped by unexpectedly for a cup of tea and a chat. I enjoyed company too, but preferred advance notice. Twenty-four hours. Minimum.

What, I wondered, would it be like with my mother living so close, with nothing separating us but a thin wall?

When it comes to caring for an aging parent, I am no expert. I'm just a woman with my own story to share. Here are the four most valuable lessons I learned.

1. Expect the Unexpected
Many times when caring for my mother, I was reminded of being a new parent; I often found myself paddling in uncharted waters, "making it up" as I went along. There is no one-size-fits-all manual for new parents because every child is different, and the same applies to caring for an aging parent.

Among the variables at play is the nature of the adult child-parent relationship (close/distant, healthy/unhealthy) itself. Add to that financial circumstances; housing arrangements; mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health; and the availability and willingness of the adult child's siblings to help. Complicating matters even more is the fact that each of these variables is maddeningly fluid.

Inevitably, just when we had established a smooth-as-glass daily routine, a new (often health-related) challenge would crop up, shattering our presumptions. We would then have to pick up the pieces and start over, working to create what we came to call a "new normal."
For example: When my mother came to live next door in her late 70s, her vision was poor, but she was still able to drive. She could maintain her independence, and so could I.

We found ways to help with her declining vision. My husband installed bright halogen lights in her living room. My sister, who lived an hour away, sent away for a special telephone with big numbers.

To learn more about Kathryn Slattery’s work, visit her website. Her book Lost & Found is available in the Guideposts Shop.