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Too Old to Parent?

Parenting: The Sequel

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Dec. 3, 2001 -- Grace Pipkin says she was trained in the Firefighter School of Mothering -- "ready, willing, always there." While her three daughters were young, that philosophy served the family well. But once they were grown, with careers of their own, Grace expected to refocus her energies on something other than parenting.

Then Sophie, 26, the youngest daughter of Grace and her husband, Daniel Pipkin (not their real names), had a medical emergency. A year out of Harvard Law School, working as a litigator on behalf of undocumented aliens, Sophie began suffering from a series of debilitating symptoms. She had memory and concentration trouble, fatigue, and painful joints and muscles -- so much so that she was unable to live on her own.

Almost as disturbing, physicians had little luck diagnosing her problem. One doctor told Sophie to "get a life," convinced that she had only psychological problems. Another told her she probably had chronic fatigue syndrome. A third doctor blamed lupus, an autoimmune disorder.

Whatever the correct diagnosis, the bottom line was that Sophie couldn't work. "Sophie came to stay with us at home. She needed to know we were at hand when she felt her weakest -- that should she awaken in the middle of the night, we were here," her mother says. So for 14 years, Grace and Daniel Pipkin have in many ways assumed their old parenting roles.

(Ultimately, Sophie tested positive for Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that sometimes leaves people severely debilitated with swelling of the joints, mental fogginess, and other problems. The diagnosis became possible when a definitive blood test for the disease became available. She took tetracycline, often prescribed to treat Lyme disease, for six months, but the antibiotic made her symptoms worse, forcing her to quit.)

Taking Up Old Roles

No one knows how many seniors like the Pipkins care for their adult children -- either due to unexpected life-threatening illnesses or to serious accidents. About 15% of U.S. adults care for a seriously ill adult, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

Donna Wagoner, professor of gerontology at Towson University near Baltimore says that 40% of Americans who need long-term care are under 65, based on U.S. Census Bureau data. Some of these are adult children like Sophie Pipkin.

Mother of 13 -- and Still Not Off Duty

Like Grace Pipkin, Annie Snow (not her real name) thought she was done with her parenting duties. Snow had raised 13 children. The first was born in the 1940s, the youngest in the 70s.

Then came the startling diagnosis: Mary Ellen, her eldest child, now 53, had invasive breast cancer and required a modified radical mastectomy of her left breast, including removal of nearby lymph nodes.

Annie moved in with Mary Ellen prior to the mastectomy and ended up staying for three months after a nurse trying to install a catheter to administer chemotherapy inadvertently punctured Mary Ellen's lung. Annie coached Mary Ellen in deep breathing exercises as directed by the doctor and helped in many other ways, large and small.

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