Too Old to Parent?
Parenting: The Sequel
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
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.