It’s sad to see how we often treat our elders

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 10, 2000

Featured Columnist

August 9, 2000 8 p.m.

Baby boomers who might have raised children with the help of a village do not always have that support when it comes time to see after their aging parents. Talking with three such families for a magazine article published last year in Friends and Family brought it all home to me.

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At 75, Sara Spradlin carries her embroidery from room to room, occasionally taking it from her lap to show her 17-year-old granddaughter, Lori Howard, what she is sewing today. Mrs. Spradlin takes comfort from the embroidery even though she hasn’t added a single stitch to a quilt top for almost five years. Alzheimer’s Disease has taken much of her memory. It began slowly six years ago and now encompasses the once-independent woman until she is unable to care for herself on a daily basis.

Lori’s mother, Charlotte, says the two never contradict Mrs. Spradlin when she talks about how her sewing is coming along. "She thinks she can still do it and what is the harm?" Charlotte asked. When she talks about her six children, Mrs. Spradlin frequently thinks they still are children and talks in the present about things that happened 40 years ago. Her grandchildren call her Nonna and frequently her daughter refers to her by that pet name.

"Nonna can remember our childhood better than ever, but she does not know to turn off the stove or control the temperature of her bath water or many of the day-to-day things that can put her in harm’s way," Charlotte said. Nonna Spradlin is on oxygen for the emphysema that makes it difficult for her to breathe and is frequently hospitalized for diabetes and congestive heart failure.

"We have thought so many times that she would never leave the hospital," Charlotte said, "but her strong will has sustained her."

A medical assistant at a pediatric office, Charlotte took two years off to care for her mother, but returned to work full-time when money became a problem. Mostly, Charlotte and a sister provide for their mother financially. Nonna receives a monthly check to pay for utilities at the house she owns, but is unable to manage other living and medical expenses on her own, receiving just a little too much to qualify for Medicaid assistance. Medicare insurance covers her hospital stays for the most part.

"Mother is one of the people who just falls through the (financial) cracks," Charlotte said. "We are able to supplement her income, but we don’t know how much longer that will last."

Nonna, who thinks she is visiting others’ houses during the day and imagines she still lives by herself, delights her family with her sense of humor, even when it’s accidental. She explained away a recent fall from her bed by recalling a visit from her husband James, who died 10 years ago. "Well, your daddy had come to see me and I was trying to get him a chair," Nonna laughed. The couple married when Nonna was 13, spending 57 years together, and Nonna sometimes thinks James is off one of his fishing trips.

Another fall was protested by, "Honey it wasn’t the fall that hurt me, it was that sudden stop that got me."

This little white-haired lady with bright blue eyes, now dimmed by time and illness, sits in her favorite chair surrounded by a parade of paper bags she stashes with clothes just in case, "I need to go home." No matter how many times the bags are removed, she replaces them with a sniff.

Her granddaughter is home-schooled, enabling Lori to spend time with Nonna during the day.

"I couldn’t make it without her. Nonna tells her about things when her own children were growing up and these are times she really gets to know her grandmother, so I tell her we are taking pictures with our hearts, but it’s still a big responsibility. You have to give up your life as you know it to take care of an Alzheimer’s patient at home, and sometimes I feel guilty about her having to do this. You don’t know the nights I lay awake feeling so guilty for not being with my husband on Father’s Day, missing Christmas Eve with my children and knowing that sometimes I am neglecting my family for my mother. It’s just my two sisters and me."

A recent hospitalization resulted in droves of relatives filling two waiting rooms as if trying to get in to say a last goodbye, but when Nonna rallied and went home, it was still just the three sisters.

A nurse remarked on the situation: "I don’t understand how one mother can take care of six children and six children can’t take care of one mother."

At 46, Charlotte is the youngest and seems determined to be with her mother to the end, noting that the last few months her mother seems to be making preparations to die. Rather than be alarmed, Charlotte accepts this preparing-time as one she and her mother can share.

She treasures the intervals when "there’s a little window that opens and my real mother comes back to me. Those are the times I think I can startle her and the sparkle will return to those blue eyes. You just learn to live for what I call those "window times."

Fran Sharp is a freelance writer who works from her home in Alabaster. Email her at  

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