'Familes on the Brink:' Caring for Elderly, Ailing Parents

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For 50 years, small-business executive JR Gardner was a steady presence in his family and a pillar of strength to his six children as they grew up in Atlanta.

"Dad would call every child, every week, every weekend. Every Saturday we knew we would get the call from Dad," said daughter Amy Monroe with a laugh.

She said JR Gardner was a proud man, very eloquent and the epitome of class.

But last summer, at the age of 82, he suffered a stroke and lost his mobility, his memory and his independence.

"He couldn't live independently any longer," Monroe said. "Our lives turned upside down on July 5."

Click here for full coverage from our eldercare series, "Families on the Brink: What to do about Mom and Dad?"

"We're all at Amy's house for the Fourth of July," sister Beth Dilworth said. "A big family celebration that she has every year. All of a sudden we get a phone call that my father and his wife had moved to Palm Springs [California] and in the middle of the night he fell and couldn't get up. ... They took him to the hospital, they diagnosed it as a stroke."

Because their parents were divorced, the six Gardner siblings realized they had to figure out what to do with their father.

"We were going 90 miles an hour -- Amy and [sister] Ann [Muennich] in California taking care of Dad. [Brother] J.P. [Gardner] and I are checking out facilities in Atlanta. We're calling my sister in Mississippi, trying to touch base with her and my elder brother. 'How are we going to pay for this?'" said Dilworth.

Because most of them lived in Atlanta, the siblings moved their father from California to an assisted living facility near them. Soon after that, their mother, Virginia Gardner, 82, was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed help as well. The kids made a tough call -- have their mom sell her house and live with one of them for a few months at a time.

Gardner herself was a caregiver earlier in life, helping to pay for care for her own mother after she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Gardner said it was different to have the tables turned, to be accepting care from her own children..

"I'm sorry I don't have the resources that I could care for myself completely. I've been working but when I got cancer, I couldn't work because I got too tired," she said.

For Sibling Caretakers, Juggling Act Leads to Frustration

As Monroe, Dilworth and J.P. Gardner found themselves managing a juggling act -- visiting their father, checking on their mother and taking care of their own families -- frustration, anger and guilt arose.

"Very much at the beginning everybody had their own philosophy, their own thought process, their own 'this is how it should be done,'" said J.P. Gardner. "Each of us had that and we clashed and [the result] was ... devastating. It took a huge toll on us, but as we clashed, it brought us together."

"Beth and I felt like we had to be there with Dad. We had to take care of Dad. So we felt like we needed to be here all the time," said Monroe.

"Personally for me, I feel sometimes I'm not doing enough," said J.P. Gardner. "Beth and Amy spend an enormous amount of time with Dad. I personally can't do it. I cannot spend hours with my dad."

"I think it might be more myself, the depression I guess is the best word because I'm not doing what they're doing," he said. "Sometimes I think they're overdoing it. There are other people in my family that aren't doing anything at all."

'They're Your Parents Too'

Francine Russo, author of "They're Your Parents Too," said that she didn't pitch in much with caring for her elderly mother, leaving her sister to carry the load and the emotional exhaustion.

"It was until my mother's funeral that I saw my father and my sister clinging to each other, holding each other up and sobbing and I finally got it. It was an ordeal they had been through without any kind of support from me."

Russo said shame motivated her to write the book on her discoveries about siblings and parent care. She offered some advice from her book.

If you are the caregiver, ask for help. Be as specific as possible.

"I think really we have learned we really have to be specific. 'This is a need Mom has today' or 'Dad has today. Who's going to take care of it?' And we have to ask for help. At first we thought nobody else is here so I'll just take care of everything and you can't do that for long," said Dilworth.

If Not Main Caregiver, Offer Support to Sibling Who Is

If you aren't the main caregiver, offer support to the sibling who is. Call and ask how they are doing, what they need. Let them vent their frustrations to you.

"We have a sister in Mississippi who has a tremendous sense of humor -- she really does -- and sometimes I have found that it is good if I'm really having a tough emotional day. I'll call [sister] Laura [Hamilton] because she has a great sense of humor and she kind of just puts it all in perspective," Dilworth said.

Ann Muennich, a sister who lives in Cincinnati, came to Atlanta to visit her father and bring her mom back home with her. "It bothers me a lot," she said of living far away from her parents and not being able to help her siblings.

"You have a lot of guilt because you're not here, but I do my best to get down here. My sister Laura lives in Mississippi. She will come one month and I try and come the other month," Muennich said.

Do not assume what your siblings are able to do. Each will respond differently.

Dilworth said she and her siblings had found what their individual specialties were. "J.P. is investigating some mail-order drugs that are going to help hopefully save us hundreds of dollars a month. I try to handle all of Dad's appointments. Amy handles the financial section," she said.

Russo said that caring for elderly, ill parents was a major family responsibility. "It's more than a responsibility, it's an overwhelming ordeal. ... Watching a parent fade and die day by day," she said.

To learn more about Fracine Russo's book click here.

Click here for full coverage from our eldercare series, "Families on the Brink: What to do about Mom and Dad?"

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