Taking Care of Mom: A Son's Journey

By Colbert, Louis G. | Aging Today, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview

Taking Care of Mom: A Son's Journey


Colbert, Louis G., Aging Today


Over the past five years, I have had opportunities to share a stage during panel discussions with veteran journalist Gail Sheehy as she advances caregiver awareness through her book Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. Gail invited me to participate because of my personal experience as a caregiver for my mom. I bring to the caregiving arena my view - that of a son and a person of color who is an active member of my mother's care team. Together, we are helping to keep my mom in her home, even as her dementia and physical health worsen.

The role of caregiver caught me by surprise. I have worked in the field of aging since 1977, but when I stepped into the caregiver role, fear and ignorance overwhelmed me, and I felt unprepared.

I clearly remember the first time I actually took care of my mother by myself, with no siblings, nieces or nephews around to help. I was unsure of how to properly transfer her from the bed to the wheelchair. 1 certainly had no idea what to do if those dreaded words were spoken: "I have to go to the bathroom."

I felt that I wasn't ready to assist in toileting my mother - everything about it is so personal, and it takes mental - and practical - preparation. I couldn't figure out how to transfer her from the wheelchair to the commode, how to hold her up and pull her pants down, and how to take care of orner personal needs. I did not want to hurt her.

The first couple of months were rough. Quite simply, I was a big mess! But my mom and I both survived, and now, years later, I am surprised at what I am able to do.

MEN STEP UP TO THE CHALLENGES OF CAREGIVING

Like so many men, the role of caregiver was hard for me to wrap my hands around. Many of us don't know how to ask for help or where to turn for services. I was a caregiver for nearly two years before I started to think of myself as one - and began incorporating self-help techniques to take better care of myself. So now, instead of telling my fellow male caregivers to "take care of yourself," I say, "ask for help."

Some current estimates suggest that one in three caregivers are men. Though most of the research and attention has been focused on women as caregivers (which means men have been overlooked), many men now are accepting the challenge of caregiving in their respective situations - whether it involves male spouses caring for their wives, or sons caring for their mothers.

As more men emerge on the caregiving scene, the future caregiver force will be more diverse racially and ethnically. We know that the population of elders of color will triple by 2030 - and we must provide culturally appropriate interventions because cultural experiences define how care recipients and caregivers receive and process information.

Most of the personal-care aides who assist my mom are from Africa. On the outside our skin may look the same, but the cultural differences are as wide as the Mississippi River. My mom's care aide is Muslim, and the recent holiday season celebrations made me especially aware of how little I knew about Muslim culture and about this lady who has now become a part of our extended family.

THE REALITIES OF DEMENTIA

I recently learned that African American elders are more at risk of developing dementia than any other ethnic group. Underreporting and late diagnosis occur, which suggests that caregivers are not getting the help they need and are more likely to struggle on their own. Many people simply delay getting geriatric assessments, or access to assessment may not be readily available, and this impedes crucial intervention.

In one of my mom's care team planning meetings, I inquired about my mother's mental status. I had thought that her stage of dementia was mild, but the staff informed me her dementia was severe. They were shocked that I, a professional in the field, had completely missed this.

That session was an eye-opening experience. …

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