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Waco Tribune-Herald Archives

One family's efforts to care for aging parents reflects struggles of many Published March 5, 2006 By Katherine Heine Tribune-Herald staff writer Vern Cotton never imagined her father old. Certainly not as a young girl, when she would sit in the wooden seats of McGregor's Third and Pullen Street Church of Christ and watch the soulful minister move congregants to shouts of "Amen" with his fervent sermons. She never predicted that the sharp-minded city councilman, who put ideals into action by enrolling his youngest daughter at the all-white high school, might know her only in flashes and then one day not at all. Pillars of the community like her father, Herman Tucker Sr., don't fade. They ride off into the sunset with dignity intact, or so Cotton thought until her father was found passed out behind his downtown business last year. Looking back, the 55-year-old Cotton said maybe the family didn't address early warning signs of disease because they couldn't stand to strip a self-made man of his independence or maybe because accepting their father's inability to care for himself was in essence acknowledging their own mortality. When doctors diagnosed him with Alzheimer's, 81-year-old Tucker insisted the tests were mistaken, but his family knew otherwise. Huddled in the hospital waiting room, his children decided to take the reins of the family from the devoted father who worked 15hour days at the city's lone black service station to provide for his babies. Such private decisions about whether to join the nation's 44 million caregivers of elderly parents are being made more and more as the first baby boomers turn 60 this year. It is a myth that Americans ship their relatives off to nursing homes to die. Only 5 percent of people age 65 and older are in such facilities. The reality is that most middleaged children find themselves, like Cotton and her siblings, adapting their lives to accommodate a role reversal. Cotton's older sister, 59-year-old Mary Fisher, put off her retirement fantasies of traveling at a moment's notice to take care of her father at her home in Killeen. Cotton, a retired teacher, moved her mother Ola's fake plants, flower comforter and breathing


machine into the guest bedroom of her cozy two-bedroom house in McGregor. Herman Jr., also of McGregor, tackled complicated Medicare and insurance information in addition to his fatherly obligations of attending his children's baseball games and school plays. The past year has been one of adjustment for the tight-knit family. Ola spent her first night alone at age 83, when Cotton was out of town. The kids waded through 60 years of knickknacks and furniture at their childhood home at 109 Arthur St. Tucker's physical health has improved under Fisher's careful monitoring, but his fiery spirit has calmed in the absence of friends and his wife of 60 years. Ola talks to her beloved on the phone. She lives for picking up her grandson, Damaun, from school each day and laughing with Cotton during "Dancing with the Stars." "At my age, it's easy to get down about your situation in life, but we both try to keep positive. That's easy when you have kids that have made such good people of themselves," Ola said. "I think I am about over the worst of it. I just hope we aren't putting anyone out." Family support counseling through the North Central Texas Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association enabled the soft-spoken matriarch to work through her separation anxiety and guilt for not being able to care for her husband because of her own health problems. The sessions prepared the Tucker children to cope with the progression of the disease and instilled in them the importance of self-care. With 61 percent of caregivers who provide at least 21 hours of care developing depression, caregivers' ability to establish coping strategies and open communication is critical. "I will ask Vern, 'Am I pleasing you?' or 'Vern, I am a little disappointed in this,' and we talk about it," Ola said. "I respect that this is her house, but she honors me. If I bring something in that she doesn't like and she will say, 'Mama, I don't like that.'" "We pray a lot, too," Cotton added before showing off the childhood tea set her mother had kept all those years. The local Alzheimer's Association director, Howard Gruetzner, said the decision to take a parent into a home is not one that should be made lightly. Two-income families putting kids through college don't provide the most stable of environments for a dependent adult. Gruetzner has seen marriages break up and unhealthy parent-child relationships re-emerge during the caregiving process. "Obviously, it's meaningful for children to pay back their parents, as a way of honoring them," he said. "But it becomes an unhealthy situation when the decision to become a caregiver is born of guilt or people are searching for some type of acceptance from their


parents, who won't be able to participate in that problem-solving if they weren't able to when they were well." A life expectancy increase of 25 years during the 20th century has resulted in more than half of America's middle-age couples caring for two or more parents at home. The 2005 Aging Texas Well Indicators Survey estimates that the 36 percent of Texas caregivers who are employed outside the home could lose $660,000 in income, pensions and benefits from taking leaves of absence to care for loved ones. "The burden on families is costing American businesses. If the employee isn't gone taking care of their loved one, they are often engaging in presenteeism, which is when an employee is constantly thinking about what is going on at home and they simply stare at the computer screen," Gruetzner said. "Some businesses have developed flex hours to give caregivers more options to get work done, but many people end up quitting." Gruetzner advises families to seek out alternative care options, such as adult day care, home health nurse aides and assisted living establishments to encourage socialization. Although resources and care facilities for elder care are still unprepared for the boom of older adults to come, Gruetzner said nursing homes and assistance programs have made advancements in theory and practice. Loring Wandless, an ombudsman for the Heart of Texas Area Agency on Aging, rates care facilities in the area. He said most of the homes rank above the state average and offer rehabilitation and socialization programs that care for the whole person. Nursing homes' care coupled with the emotional support from visits by family members ensure residents receive the best physical and emotional support. "People shouldn't feel bad for putting their parent in a nursing facility. They often get the best care, and you don't have to give up your life," said Wandless, whose 98-year-old mother died in a nursing home after living in the facility for nearly four years. "But I've seen residents who never have visitors, and it breaks their spirits. If they live in town, family members should stop by several times a week. They live for people to come and talk to them." Cotton said the family looked into at-home or day-care services in McGregor but were unsuccessful in finding someone they trusted. Fisher was able to hire a home health nurse who comes in for a half-day five times each week to assist Tucker in moving his thumbs, which he injured while retrieving a soda from a machine for a young customer. With a year of care under their belt, the children have grown familiar with alternative care options if their parents' conditions worsen. Adult day-care centers that provide nursing home care during the day have grown more popular in the past decade. Waco's Sunny Day Center is one of three adult day care facilities in the area. Waco Transit picks


up the center's 44 clients from their homes in the morning for a day reminiscent of a Sunday afternoon at the corner store, with the occasional visit from Daisy the clown or the Hallelujah Cloggers. "Here we provide a time for socialization and growth as well as diet monitoring and life skills, but clients get to go home at the end of the day," said Sunny Day's director, Adeli Ybarra, who hopes to take the program statewide. "We provide the one-on-one attention they don't get at nursing homes, but we keep them as independent as possible. They make their own choices of how to spend their time." Fisher hopes to never commit her father to care outside the home. Sure she complains about her father forgetting to write down phone messages, but the time spent with her dad has given the eldest child a newfound respect for Tucker's perseverance to maintain his health. "He has been a total inspiration for me. He has shown me the value of sticking to things," she said. "You think you know your parents, but he has taught me to take whatever life hands me and do it to the best of my ability without complaining." The Tuckers take the days, with all their setbacks and laughs, in stride. Ola surprises Cotton with, "Did you know Beyonce and Jay-Z are a couple," and she is enjoying not having to spend hours in the kitchen making yeast rolls. Fisher takes walks with her father and gets frustrated at his "little bad kid" moments. Life hasn't dealt Ola and Herman Tucker Sr. a Hollywood ending of riding off into the sunset, but their children will carry them through the last curtain call. kheine@wacotrib.com 757-6901 **** Adult day cares: Adult Day Care of Waco, 323 N. 29th St., 714-2274 Friends for Life Day Care Center, 2200 MacArthur Drive, 757-2511 Sunny Day Center, 2714 Old Dallas Road, 799-1099 Hospices:


Hillcrest Community Hospice, 3215 Pine Ave., 202-5150 Providence Hospice, 4830 Lakewood Drive, 399-9099 Vista Care Hospice, 2626B South 37th St., Temple (800) 643-3139 Southern Care Hospice, 1101 Wooded Acres Drive, 751-9537 Other resources: Area Agency on Aging, 300 Franklin Ave. Dial 2-1-1 or (866) 772-9600 The Area Agency on Aging provides temporary caregiver support/respite. They also provide legal assistance, such as simple wills and advanced directives, and offer assistance with Medicare Part D and Medicaid Estate Planning. Central Texas Senior Ministry, 501 W. Waco Drive, 752-0316 CTSM provides Meals on Wheels and medical transportation. Department of Aging and Disability Services, 801 Austin Ave., 755-7656 DADS provides in-home health-care assistance for those who meet income, resource and medical requirements. Veterans Administration, 701 Clay Ave., (800) 827-1000 Social Security Administration, 6801 Sanger Ave., (800) 772-1213 Heart of Texas Region MHMR, 3420 W. Waco Drive, 757-3933 They provide respite services for those with mental disabilities. (c) 2006 Cox Newspapers, Inc. - Waco Tribune-Herald


Caring for Aging Parents