Commentary: Preparing to take on the role of caretaker for parents

Leslie Handler

is a syndicated columnist for Senior Wire

He awoke to her calling his name. He found her on the floor in front of the bed, her walker still standing in the corner of the room, her robe zipped around her Parkinson's-riddled body.

My brother and I happened to be staying with them at the time. Dad called for me to help get her up. Fortunately, she was unhurt from the fall. The two of us worried about Mom and her balance, but Dad seemed distracted by something else. I guess after 60 years of marriage, he can recognize her signs before anyone else.

That night, after dinner, we sat together with the TV blaring the news so Dad could hear it. He and Mom were talking quietly, but then his voice was raised. Then he was yelling: "How did you fall off the end of the bed and not the side? You never sleep with a robe on. Why was your robe already on?" There was no response from Mom. "Putting on a little show for the kids?" he asked her.

My brother and I had been taken in again. Mom staged the fall. She had gotten up, put on her robe so that she wouldn't be embarrassed, lay down on the ground in front of the bed, and called for help. The all-too-familiar cycle - the showing off, the need for attention - was starting again.

Punching, slapping, hitting, screaming. These are only a few of the things Mom does when she's manic. When depressed, she can take to her bed for months at a time - and then there are those magnificent times when we have her back - a beautiful, vibrant woman, full of love and elegance.

This bipolar cycle has been going on for at least 60 of her 81 years. Dad is our knight in shining armor, single-handedly caring for her. It doesn't matter if we want to help; he refuses to "burden" us. As she gets older, her illness seems to be getting worse. But his stamina is depleting. As she gets older, I know I have to step in.

I am fortunate to have two loving parents who raised me and are still with me. Like so many baby boomers, I, too, need to take the responsibility of caring for them when in need. Dad adamantly remains independent for now, but I can see the stress of his caregiving whittling away at his happiness and his ability to enjoy these later years of his life.

We are thousands of miles away from each other, but I can feel his blood pressure rising. I hear the crack in his voice when Mom is so manic he can barely breathe. I can almost touch him through the phone and feel his rigid skin holding his breath inside his body, waiting to exhale, waiting for her to get better again so he can have his life back - they can have their lives back.

I want to help now, and in the future. I want to give Dad some respite. My only choice is to take his place by physically dealing with Mom's mania. No other help exists.

Long-term care for the mentally ill and respite for their caregivers does not exist unless the patient willingly agrees to go or is a danger to herself or others. Mentally ill patients can see a regular psychiatrist and therapist, but when they are in emergency mode, their own doctors will not see them. They are told to go to the nearest emergency room, but ERs are not equipped to deal with them. If they are physically stable, the patients will be sent to a psychiatric facility, but their insurance will cover only a few days of care. After three to 10 days, well or not, the patient is sent home. Back to Dad.

What if Dad weren't around? What if he were not able to care for her? My brother and I would have to take turns dealing with her manic abuse. We would be the ones to escort her out of a building when she's creating a scene. We would be the target of the objects she slams across a room. We would be the ones to clean up the flood when she plugs up all the drains and runs every faucet in the house. There is no one else. There is no place for Mom.

No nursing home would be able to deal with her. No hospital can keep her beyond a few days. No long-term treatment centers exist unless she commits herself or is a danger. And the last thing I would want to do is force her to go somewhere against her will when she's well. She's not sick all the time.

I love my parents. I wish only happiness for them. I want to be there for Mom when she's not well. I want to have the patience and the stamina for her that my father has had for all these years. And I want to be there for Dad. He needs a break.

But he's not ready. So, until then, I will wait in the wings. I will wait, knowing there is one place for Mom. She can fit right into my arms. As stressful as caring for her is, I will be there, with open arms. Hers were always open for me.

les.handler@gmail.com