I love the sign sitting in my bay kitchen window “My life has a superb cast, but I can’t figure out the plot.” At 53, perhaps it’s all beginning to make sense. I recently joined Pacifica Senior Living as a Director of Sales, re-engaging back to an earlier phase in my career. I purposefully took classes to reactivate my administrator’s license and decided to put my professional and personal skills in a place to help others. The twist to this storyline is that I am doing so at the same time I have been caring for my own aging parents; my 74 - year - o l d mother with Alzheimer’s and my 81-year old father with heart problems. It’s been a challenging few years. For us, Alzheimer’s is hereditary. My mother and her older sister, who passed away a few years ago from the same disease, are the third generation to battle Alzheimer’s. And it’s all the same - starts in late 60’s and includes personality and behaviour changes of rage, paranoia, and violence, combative and aggressive behaviours. My beautiful, gentle mother, who generously shared her love and hugs, and laughed through life, has also thought I was my father’s girlfriend, left me with bruises, cursed me out and took a swing at me while I was driving 70 miles per hour on the 10 freeway (yes I held on to the car!)
On multiple occasions, her fluctuating mood patterns left my father black and blue from bites, kicks and swinging handbags. She has also had challenging moments with my brother. As the disease progressed, our family had interactions with Adult Protective Services and 911 assistance, an involuntary psychiatric hold and other related issues before making the final decision in October 2016 to place mom in an assisted living community.
My brother, Michael, and I live in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita Valleys - 150 miles from our parents. They retired 20 years ago to Palm Desert and had a full life filled with friends and activities. We examined our options, but in the end, Michael and I decided to not force my parents to the Valley and we placed Mom near dad to give him some semblance of a life. While very lonely, he has an amazing circle of friends and is once again playing senior softball, bowling and golf. He visits mom most days and calls me often in tears about how much he loves her. We also understand the real issues of caregiver stress as both grandparents died weeks apart – our grandmother, the caregiver, died six weeks before my grandfather with Alzheimer’s. In a study published in Journal of the American Medical Association older adults (aged 66 – 96) caring for a spouse have a 63% higher risk of death than non-caregivers of the same age.
With statistics working against us, our goals include making sure Mom is receiving loving and professional care, and not to repeat history and watch one disease kill both parents. I became a “helicopter daughter.” Their trust did not include proper documents and I legally took Durable Power of Attorney for Mom. In that role, I spent a week trying to cancel Mom’s cell phone and multiple weeks getting Long Term Care payments rolling. I deal with doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and senior living administrators.
I get all the first calls when there is an issue in order to take all of this and more off my father’s shoulders (and heart).
We have a wonderful team of doctors and Mom is on the appropriate cocktail of medications but still has fluctuating mood patterns. The Assisted Living community excels at caring for her, and my conversations and emails with the administrator always includes a comforting “Please don’t worry - it’s what we do :)”
The disease is progressing, but I am grateful the roller-coaster of the last few years is more settled. So much is already slipping away. Having a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia is like watching someone die twice. At dinner, the tears started rolling as I looked around our table in May knowing this was the last Mother’s Day where Mom will know who we are, and cherishing the moments remaining where she does.
I recognize the unique gift and perspective I have at this moment in my life -- wearing both hats simultaneously, as a current senior living director and grateful daughter who needed to find the find the correct placement for my own mother. I am blessed to be able to help others. I believe the best includes a “Welcome Home” compassionate, supportive and knowledgeable team that provides personalized resident-centered care services with dignity and respect. I know our most important job is to get to know each resident on an individual basis and honor their life story.
So perhaps the plot is figured out. For me senior care is a personal passion -- an opportunity to provide care with a purpose. Knowing the heartache that families go through, I truly appreciate the hard work of exceptional teams in a challenging situation and believe it is a privilege to assist families in the care of loved ones – families just like my own! Ultimately, I want to give families peace of mind so that they can sleep through the night. (As I am finally able to do!)
About the author :
Ronda Wilkin’s long career in healthcare includes previously serving as an executive director and regional director for Sunrise Senior Living and published author and speaker on related articles. She spent more than eight years with Blue Shield of California before serving as CEO of the Beauty Bus Foundation where more than 60% of her clients were frail seniors. Wilkin’s work has been recognized by the Alzheimer’s Association, San Fernando Business Journal, Los Angeles City Council and our Congressman, Brad Sherman. She recently was invited to be a USC Davis School of Gerontology Mentor and part of the Los Angeles Clorox Company Care Council. For more than a decade, countless friends and family have turned to Ronda for help with their aging parents.