Amy Goyer left her home in Washington two years ago to care for her aging parents in Phoenix. Her mother had suffered a stroke two decades earlier, and her father was beginning to show signs of dementia.
Goyer works at AARP as a family expert and has walked hundreds of caregivers through this same process. But even for her, the shifting familial roles have brought challenges and unexpected emotions.
Her parents' house had always been her safe place, like childhood homes are for so many adults who move away for education and work and build their lives elsewhere. It was where she went to be taken care of by the people from whom it comes most instinctively. Now, she handles their doctors' appointments, keeps a journal of their medications and instructions, manages their finances and makes sure their daily needs are met.
Her father is 87, and her mother is 84. Goyer's goal is to keep them living in their home, as independently as possible, for as long as possible.
"I didn't expect how difficult it would be letting go of a piece of who they were," she said. "There is a loss of who they were to you. It is a loss of the world as it was," she said.
For daughters, it can be especially startling to see a father fade — unable to take care of a home, losing the ability to walk and drive. There's a dissonance to seeing your protector as needing protection.
When that starts to happen, it changes your own place in the world. You become more than just their adult child. You become their connection to preserving their life as it was.
An estimated 34 million Americans work as unpaid caregivers to other adults, spending an average of 21 hours a week, according to the most recent AARP study. It describes the typical unpaid caregiver as a 46-year-old woman who works outside the home while caring for an elderly relative. In families with siblings, one child typically assumes the brunt of the responsibilities of primary caregiver. Sibling resentments and rivalries can easily fester and combust.
The millions who do step up tend to share Goyer's philosophy on taking care of elderly parents: "This is how you put love into action," she said. "So, yes, it involves some sacrifices. You think your parents didn't make sacrifices for you?"
Goyer, who is 50, said she had worked in adult day care settings before, and when the residents would ask her repeatedly the name of a particular place, she was able to simply answer. But when her father does the same, it triggers the flash of a memory.
"He was a brilliant professor, an international leader in his field," she said.
How prepared is any adult child to let go of an image like that? It is nearly impossible to prepare for the decline of those who raised you.
I got a glimpse of unexpected aging on a recent trip home to Houston. Both of my parents were struggling through some health issues, and I had mostly worried from afar. In person, I was struck by how fragile they seemed. It was the first time that I considered the complexities of what their care may be like 15 or 20 years from now. It scared me.
As the eldest of six, I got their most authoritarian and involved parenting. They were considerably worn down by children 4, 5 and 6. But to me, they embody strength. It's easy to slip back into traditional places when we step back into our childhood homes.
It was a clear, warm evening after the entire crowd of us had eaten dinner, and I suggested going for a run in the neighborhood. No one immediately volunteered to accompany me on this nighttime jog. My father insisted I could not go alone. Their neighborhood is in a quiet and safe suburb, so much so, that I can't recall a single criminal incident in the years they have lived there. But my father was adamant: There would be no solo running at 9 p.m. I convinced my youngest sister, the lawyer, that we needed the fresh air and exercise.
When we headed out the door, my father got on his bike and rode behind us — his grown, professional daughters — through the paved cul-de-sac streets to ward off whatever dangers may have lurked behind weeping willows and flowering crape myrtles.
I didn't mind.
It was his chance to reassert a familiar role. And it was just as comforting to me as it must have been for him.
Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org