A Take-Charge Caregiver Learns the Value of Asking for Help

Relocating three senior family members seemed a daunting task; accepting assistance made it possible.

Posted in , Oct 25, 2019

Stephanie and Mam Ma

I’m a take-charge person. My motto has always been “If it’s to be, then it’s up to me.” But this phone call from my husband Michael’s 90-year-old grandmother blindsided me.

“Bob is nearing his 100-day skilled nursing limit,” Mam Ma said. “He’s still not able to care for himself. Can you find a place we can live near you? We have until January 25.”

I’d known Mam Ma’s 68-year-old son, Bob, had been having falling spells in October and gone to a nursing home for inpatient physical therapy. But I was clueless about Medicare and what it did and didn’t pay for. It had never occurred to me that he’d need someplace entirely new to live. Within six weeks, no less!

“I’ll see what I can find,” I said and hung up, feeling the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. There was no one else to help her. My husband’s mom, Mam Ma’s daughter, had died decades ago, and I was the only one in the family under 60 who didn’t work full-time. Part of me liked being the one everyone turned to. The one who got things done. But this would go beyond finding a home for Mam Ma, Bob and John, her older son, who’d lived with Mam Ma his entire life in Poteau, Oklahoma, three hours east of us.

The three of them moving to Oklahoma City would mean more calls needing help—and more responsibilities for me—for years to come. I didn’t want to be selfish, but I had our teenage daughter, Micah, to raise, plus my part-time job, Bible study leadership duties, volunteer commitments. All I could think about was how caregiving would take over my life. Just this move was going to consume the lion’s share of my time for months. Finding Mam Ma and her sons a suitable place to live. Getting their current homes emptied and sold. It was mid-December, my schedule jam-packed with holiday activities. Lord, I can’t do all this, I thought, though I wasn’t expecting much help. God was delegating this to me. After all, he’d created me to be a take-charge woman.

The thing was, Mam Ma and I had already gone through this exercise about a year ago. She’d come to Oklahoma City to look at some retirement communities with cottages. We’d visited a dozen facilities, but none seemed right. I loved Mam Ma as if she were my own grandmother. She was a spunky go-getter like me. I couldn’t imagine her being happy about leaving the town where she’d lived the past 70 years.

Then in October, Bob had moved in with Mam Ma because he kept falling. He’d lived alone for decades, despite his neuropathy. But now his condition was worsening. He couldn’t walk on his own, even with a walker. That’s why he’d gone into the nursing home for rehabilitation.

I’d watched three other grandmothers move into retirement centers. No matter how luxurious, how good the food, how close they were to family, each of them had regretted leaving their own homes. Mam Ma and John had lived in the same house for all 69 years of his life. The church they went to was three blocks up the street. Everything was familiar. Moving to the big city, not knowing a soul besides Michael, his brother and their dad’s families would be a huge adjustment. No, Mam Ma wasn’t ready. I definitely wasn’t ready. Maybe that’s why, even after this latest call, I dragged my feet. I figured Bob could continue to rehab at the Poteau nursing home. A few days before Christmas, I called Mam Ma on her cell phone. It went to voice mail, but she never called back. That evening I tried her landline.

“Someone stole my car from in front of the house,” she said. “My purse and phone were in it. I’d come from the nursing home and been so exhausted that I accidentally left the keys in the ignition. The police say they’re going to question the folks in the drug house across the street.”

Drug house? We’d visited Mam Ma enough to know her neighborhood had gone downhill, but I didn’t realize it was that bad. I took a deep breath. “I haven’t forgotten about finding you that new place,” I said. “Don’t worry. I’m on it.”

I hung up and typed assisted living centers near me into a search engine on my smartphone. I wanted a facility that had independent and assisted living in the same building, so Mam Ma and her sons could stay close to each other. I don’t know what I was expecting to find—after all, we’d toured everywhere last year.

Something popped up in the search results—a place I’d never seen before, with exactly the setup I wanted. I visited the next day. They had immediate openings for two apartments, both on the first floor. Bob could be in assisted living while John and Mam Ma could be in independent living, a gorgeous two-bedroom apartment. Her car and phone had been recovered, and I texted her photos. “It looks wonderful,” she said. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine how we’d missed this place the previous year. Michael, Micah and I drove to Poteau for Christmas, our SUV stuffed with the dinner I’d prepared and flattened moving boxes. After we ate, we showed Mam Ma how to assemble the boxes and pull packing tape across the bottom. Mam Ma struggled with the tape. “Just use your energy for packing,” I said. “We’ll do the boxes.”

I devised a plan. Mam Ma would sort items—deciding what to donate, to sell and to take with her. We’d come back the following weekend to pack them in boxes. But the next weekend, a rare snowstorm hit. The roads were too bad to travel.

Now there were only three weekends left until January 25, and one of them was Micah’s soccer tournament. Mam Ma was going to have to get rid of three quarters of her things. There were two cars to sell. And I had to get both Mam Ma’s and Bob’s houses on the market. I can’t do all this!

I found a moving company, and a real estate agent met with Mam Ma. I contacted used car dealers and had Mam Ma call the utility companies. What was I forgetting?

The first Saturday in January, we got to Mam Ma’s to find her porch filled with sturdy boxes, already assembled. “A cafeteria worker at the middle school brings them when they’re emptied,” Mam Ma said. We went inside. Boxes sat sealed and stacked in every room.

“Some ladies from church came over and packed my curio and china cabinets,” Mam Ma said. “The woman I volunteer with at the clothing closet took the clothes I don’t wear, and a friend from music club helped me pack up the kitchen. Since I don’t plan on cooking anymore, it was easy.”

With her house nearly done, Mam Ma suggested we shift to Bob’s. I took the kitchen, Michael the living room, and Micah and Mam Ma sorted through clothes in his bedroom. After two hours, I had barely made a dent.

“I cleaned out the garage, attic and storage shed,” a voice said. I turned. It was Mam Ma’s yard guy. Unbeknownst to me, she’d recruited him to help. Suddenly my one room didn’t seem that difficult.

“By the way, the neighbors next door are interested in buying this house for their daughter,” he said.

The day before the move I drove to Mam Ma’s, expecting a full day of work. But there was hardly anything left to do. The daughter of a friend of hers had volunteered to hold a rummage sale for everything we weren’t moving. But their cars remained. I couldn’t leave them parked at her vacant house, and local dealers weren’t offering fair prices. “What about selling them on Facebook?” Mam Ma said.

That will never work, I thought. Mam Ma didn’t exactly have a huge social media following. She had a private page with 167 Facebook friends. But I took photos of the cars and posted them to her account, hoping it would take her mind off her house being emptied. I knew it couldn’t be easy for her.

Within minutes, people responded. Both cars had buyers before the movers were even finished. “Boy, word really travels fast on the internet,” Mam Ma said. “You know, I’m looking forward to making a new start. It’s kind of exciting.”

I stared at her. I’d always thought of Mam Ma as being like me. Strong-willed. Independent. And she was. Yet she gladly accepted help. She wasn’t afraid to ask for it either, from friends or from God. Even at 90, she was up for new challenges. I’d never heard her complain about being a caregiver for her sons. These past few months, she’d taught me a lot about faith, about trusting God—and the people he puts in our lives—when things seem overwhelming. If it’s to be, it isn’t all up to me. There was a lot I could learn from her still.

“Yes, it’s going to be awesome, Mam Ma,” I said. “I’m going to like having you a phone call away.”

Read more: 5 Tips for Long-Distance Caregiving

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