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Too Old to Parent?

Parenting: The Sequel

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.

For each chemotherapy treatment, Annie made the drive from her home in Augusta, Ga., to Atlanta and stayed with Mary Ellen a week at a time. One of her other daughters, Margaret, accompanied her on the majority of these trips. But it was Annie who set the schedule and tone of the day, keeping everybody moving like clockwork, assigning tasks and duties.

Mary Ellen's illness hit Annie hard, and she rearranged her entire life to care for her. Still, she will say little about how much she has contributed. "I'm not cleaning up Mary Ellen's vomit to be a hero," she says.

Dealing With the Stress

Psychotherapist Marianne Hunt, who works with seniors in her Los Angeles practice, says, "It's critical to acknowledge the illness and not to minimize the incredible amount of stress, on a practical and emotional level, for both the parent and the adult child. The parent must also walk a fine line to honor the child's way of coping."

"But don't be afraid to ask for help," she says. "Make sure you get enough support."

When Sophie Pipkin was further wiped out by the six months of tetracycline treatment, she needed meals, laundry, transportation, snacks at odd hours, and help to accomplish even the smallest of tasks. Since, she has slowly regained some of her energy.

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