Author: BONNIE HEROLD For The Times
Date: May 20, 1995
Publication: Huntsville Times, The (AL)
Page: B 1
An aging America calls for care from its children
Growing old is never easy. Bones become brittle, eyesight fails, and events from 50 years earlier far override yesterday's.
As people age, they must often depend on others to care for them.
Jessie and Carl Poston have provided a home for her mother, Grace Schmidtlein, since July 1994. Then 95, she had previously lived with her granddaughter and her husband. Once they became adoptive parents, though, they wanted to start a home of their own--without grandmother.
Mrs. Poston says, "At that point, we children gave her the options of nursing home placement, hiring a live-in caretaker, or living with one of us." She chose Mrs. Poston's home.
Those first six months were joyful. Her mother remained relatively healthy. Still alert, she continued one of her favorite hobbies, writing. In fact, one of her articles appeared in a recent issue of Good Old Days.
"Mother also liked swimming at the Jim Williams Aquatic Center," says Mrs. Poston. "She had been a swimming instructor in the '20s and still appreciated the sport."
Unfortunately, she suffered a stroke in December which affected her entire left side. She cannot speak nor write but communicates by a type of sign language.
Mrs. Poston says, "Up until her stroke, we had always included her in our decision-making. We still do that to a limited degree. We ask her simple questions requiring yes or no. We hold her hand and receive a response. A sideways movement of her hand means no. Up and down means yes.
“If I hadn't been a registered nurse, though," says Mrs. Poston, "we would have had to put her in a nursing home." Instead, they adjusted their lives accordingly.
They notified the fire department of her condition. A visiting nurse comes three times a week. Friends and a group called Good Neighbors from the Madison United Methodist Church pitch in. Ms. Poston dedicates one afternoon a week to running errands. Friday nights belong to her and her husband.
"We've enjoyed Mother's presence and include her in as many activities as we can. She has recently begun attending church with us again. We also bought an RV and made it handicap accessible so she can travel with us."
Brenda Barnett, whose 72-year-old mother Nelma George lives with her and her husband Bob, agrees that maintaining one's lifestyle is critical.
"I've taken care of Mother since 1985. I had always been active. If I let her illness affect my lifestyle, I'd go crazy."
Mrs. Barnett becomes emotionally charged when speaking of her situation.
“My mother developed a brain aneurysm in 1985," says Mrs. Barnett. "From 1985 to 1991, I divided my attention between my home in Madison and hers in Huntsville. At one point, she had fallen and broken both arms. I stayed with her for weeks at a time while my husband took care of our teenage children." Her mother's personality had changed so much that she saw nothing unusual with this arrangement.
It became especially difficult for the few months prior to selling her house. Not only did Mrs. George require fairly constant care, Mr. Barnett's mother Nettie Barnett became terminally ill.
"I can't stand cigarettes, but my mother had so little left in life. I hated to take that from her. We didn't trust her with matches, though. There was a period of time when I'd drive to my mother's hourly to light her cigarettes, then I'd visit Nettie. My husband would stay with his mother on weekends, and I'd stay with mine."
It finally became too much, of course, to maintain two homes. Mrs. George suffered a series of mini-strokes. Since Mrs. Barnett had power-of-attorney, she felt it necessary to sell her mother's home. She hated to strip her of her independence but saw no other possible course of action.
"It would be a whole lot easier on us if my mother were happy. She's not. She can't communicate, yet still understands. That's difficult. We've stopped going to restaurants because she always cried over her inability to do the basics--cut food, hold a fork in the proper hand. I could tolerate the mess but not the tears."
Mrs. Barnett initially suffered a period of depression when her mother moved in with them. She took stock, however, and decided the only way to manage was to live as normal a life as possible. Her brother initially relieved them for short periods of time. When it became too much for him, they turned to their children for help.
"I wish there were more resources for respite care," says Mrs. Barnett. "I'd especially like to see more overnight services. My husband and I like to camp and canoe, and we need someone dependable for weekend care."
Some elderly, however, require little from their caretakers. Audrey and Bob Gustafson were luckier than most. Her 88-year-old father Marvin Halvorson remained relatively healthy until his death in April 1995.
Hailing from Minnesota, he spent winters with them for the previous ten years. When he visited the winter of 1994, they wouldn't let him return.
"His health was obviously failing, and I insisted he stay on. He agreed.
"He had driven until that point, but we felt it was out of the question for him to continue," she says. He remained independent, however, in other respects. He cooked and cleaned which allowed her to continue her volunteer activities. He never wanted to intrude. She knew he was really ill when he could no longer raise their flag, his daily job.
"He developed pneumonia and was hospitalized. When the hospital could no longer do anything for him, he came home. Eight days later, he died."
Their kitty, his constant companion for the previous year, obviously feels the loss as she contemplates the empty recliner and meows plaintively. His death left a void difficult to fill.
Copyright, 1995, The Huntsville Times. All Rights Reserved.