A Caregiver’s Journey: The Day I Became a Caregiver

Do you remember the day your identity expanded from son, daughter, spouse or friend to include “caregiver?”   Maybe it didn’t happen all at once.  Or maybe you didn’t fully realize the switch was happening till later, as you got more experience and the contours of your “caregiver era” came into focus.  It took some time, but now that Mom’s been gone for three years, I know the exact moment that my identity changed.

It was an early Spring day in early 2009.  We’re on the south shore of Long Island, New York.  Dad had passed in December (I’m not ready to talk much about that experience quite yet), and I was up from my home in Maryland to help Mom get ready to move down to an independent living apartment close to me and my sister.  Mom and Dad had sold our family house years ago and had lived in an apartment in our hometown of Rockville Centre for 20 years or so.  There was a lot that was already done.  Movers had been hired.  Boxes had been packed. Travel arrangements had been made for flying Mom down to Reagan National.

In retrospect, maybe all these tasks could be labeled “caregiving,” but that’s not how I was experiencing it right then.  Dad’s constant refrain to me during his gradual decline was “take care of your mother.”   In my mind, all I was being was a good son.

I had been there a few days, packing boxes and preparing Mom for her move.  It was now two days before Mom’s departure.  I could tell that Mom, though she put on brave face, was nervous and upset about all this change.  At 86, she was a cancer survivor, but was in pretty good shape.  She was still walking without help, still the avid reader, still the nature-lover, and still the sunny personality that made her a pleasure to be with.  I was confident that she would adjust, maybe even thrive, in her new independent living apartment.

Mom was going to miss two close friends, but most of her and Dad’s many friends had died or moved to warmer climes.  But what she was going to miss most by far was her beloved beach.   Mom grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and had never lived far from the ocean.  You could smell salt in the air in Rockville Centre.  Swimming in the ocean, sunbathing and reading her books on a lounge chair along the shoreline were her greatest passions.

We were scheduled to return her leased car to the dealership – the last big chore – the following day and she asked me if we could go for one last visit to the ocean.  For reasons I don’t remember, I was not allowed to drive her leased car, so the idea was that she would drive her car and I would follow behind her in mine.  It’s a trip she had made a thousand times.  What could go wrong?

Don’t worry.  Nothing terrible happened.  But I remember something terrible almost happened about 10 times.  Driving behind Mom on those two drives back and forth to the beach was both terrifying eye-opening. Mom’s driving skills were now at the “look straight ahead, stop at lights, then go” level.  No looking in mirrors, side or rear.   No awareness of pedestrians.   The only good thing about driving right behind Mom was that I was literally protecting her, er, rear end.   At least once I yelled “look out!” at my windshield like a teenager yelling at the movie screen during a horror movie.  Her maintaining a speed 10 miles per hour below the limit made it feel more, not less scary, as other drivers had to adjust.

Mom got her last visit to her beloved beach.  She would NEVER drive a car again.  All was well.  I had a few more gray hairs.

My mind was a whir.  How long had THIS been going on?  What else had I missed?  What did it mean for how Mom would fare living on her own?  I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but on that Spring day my identity changed.  I was no longer “just” a good son, helping out when I was needed.  I was a son-caregiver, 24/7.

My journey had begun.   Do you remember when yours began?   I’d love to hear from you.

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