Backroads: My sincerest gratitude

By From page A5 | January 13, 2012

In part one of this three-part series, Backroads columnist Mike Roberts shares his frustration over trying to manage his 87-year-old mother’s declining health from afar, and how an assortment of people helped out along the way.

My family has a versatile expression that describes the last half of 2011 for both my mother and I: “gawdawful.” We stretch out the “gaw,” emphatically, then spit “dawful.” GAWWW-dawful.

Since July 2011 my mother has been in hospitals and subsequent rehab facilities (think physical therapy, not Lindsay Lohan) most of the time.

Mom’s affliction, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is increasingly common in former smokers of the Greatest Generation. She’s been on oxygen full time for five years. As she puts it, “I’m healthy, I just can’t breath.”

Twice in 2011 she was discharged from rehab only to return to the emergency room within a week, frighteningly weak and gasping for air. It was terrifying to witness.

As her only child and designated “patient advocate,” I found myself sucked into her illness, learning about her disease, drugs, doctors and decidedly dire prognosis — all the while trying to continue to work as a reporter, covering my El Dorado Hills beat from hospital cafeterias and coffee shops in Illinois.

This is the story of how Mom and I got from there to here, Placerville, and how downright humble and grateful I am to the people who entered our lives and made it happen.

Up until Nov. 29, 2011, Mom’s home address was in Downers Grove, Ill., an idyllic Chicago suburb where I did some growing up in the 1970s and some more in late 2011.

Early last month Mom took up residence at Gold Country Retirement Community, located off Missouri Flat Road behind Herbert Green School. She’s settling in nicely, considering she can’t breathe.

The journey consumed all my vacation and sick time, including vacation time my boss Noel Stack generously donated.

The actions and decisions required to get Mom to Placerville required everything I had and, in some cases, more. I was in uncharted territory, struggling to separate her best interests from my own wants and fears. There were numerous bad decisions. My best plans fell flat.

The biggest problem, of course, was money. Everyone involved both worries and hopes that Mom will outlive her modest nest egg.

Early on I let money drive my thinking, and tried to find a place for her that would accept her as a Medicaid patient when her nest egg was depleted. But all the candidates near her home had long waiting lists.

Finally, I found an assisted living facility in Illinois that guaranteed they’d accept her even after her money ran out. After our successful interview, we celebrated across the from the “supportive living” facility at a classic Chicago hot dog stand, where we dined outdoors in a light, late-summer breeze that turned chilly by the time we noshed our last French fry.

Mom weakened over the next four days, and I realized that the facility’s prohibition on electric mobility devices was a show stopper. By the weekend she was back in the hospital diagnosed with “pre-pneumonia.”

Each time my plans failed, each time I was about to be overwhelmed, someone would step into the breach and show me another way. Sometimes these guides entered my life at my behest, but more often it was over protests that I had the situation under control.

Friends, family and coworkers chipped in for me, sometimes with simple encouragement or advice, other times pushing me aside and rolling up their sleeves.

Early on college buddy Val gave me the courage, and the medical journal articles, to confront my mother’s long-standing doctors about her medication. The ensuing interaction left me spitting mad, and merits its own column.

Thanks to Val, Mom no longer takes cholesterol or high blood pressure medication, conditions that neither of us remember her ever having; drugs that have since been shown to cause, especially in seniors, and especially when taken long-term, the fatigue and breathlessness which now plague her. She’d been on those drugs for as long as she could remember.

Carole Heape of Elder Options here in Placerville helped guide me through the maze of decisions that Mom and I faced. Carole’s probably accustomed to anxious 50-somethings, desperate for a humane solution to our parents’ health and housing needs, aghast at the costs and frightened by the guilt of making a bad choice.

My wife Michele was completely willing to move Mom into our admittedly ill-suited home, but neighbor Dave warned me against it, suggesting that we resort to in-home care when all other options are played out.

He suggested I look into Gold Country, and shared his mother’s experience there, boasting that he stopped to see her every day for nearly two years. I drove over to Gold Country later that day, met the residents queued up for dinner, as upbeat a group of engaged seniors as I’d every experienced, and realized that Mom belonged there.

Up until mid November Mom stubbornly insisted she could continue to live on her own, despite the growing evidence to the contrary. Getter her to agree to pull up stakes wasn’t easy. Part 2 includes that decision, and the trip to Placerville.

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Mike Roberts


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