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

PHOTO: Elder Care

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."

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