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ELDER CARE: Caring for California's Aging Population : 'I Was Never Prepared for the Total Dependence'

May 20, 1990|EUGENE AHN

Bob Leppert remembers the time about five years ago when his elderly mother, Norma Finch, visited him in Northern California, arriving from Los Angeles six hours ahead of schedule because she absent-mindedly left home early and boarded the wrong flight.

The 41-year-old sales director from Newark also remembers the time last summer when he took his family to visit Finch in Pasadena: The front door of her house was ajar and she had collapsed on the bedroom floor from the physical weakness that accompanies age.

Such have been the encounters in the long-distance relationship between Finch, now 80, and two of her grown children, Bob Leppert and his older sister, Norma Leppert.

After clearing legal and emotional hurdles, the brother and sister--juggling families and middle-class careers--recently reached a sort of milestone in their efforts to care for their mother's fading health and loosen her grasp on her old sense of independence.

They placed her in a retirement home.

"I'm sad that we had to do it. I'm sad that she had to give it all up," said Bob Leppert, who visited Pasadena with his sister in December to prepare to lease the quaint two-bedroom house where Finch had lived alone for five years after her second husband's death.

Trying to help their mother piqued their personal concerns about aging, they said, while adding strain on their jobs, lives and the shock of accepting the role reversal in which the grown child ends up caring for the aged parent.

"The elderly revert back. They lose everything, the memory of all the things they've spent a lifetime accumulating; all the knowledge and the understanding is gone," Bob Leppert said. "I was never prepared for that--the total dependence and total reversal."

For instance, whenever she needed to leave her house and visit a doctor in Los Angeles, Finch called her daughter in Northern California. Norma Leppert would then take a plane hundreds of miles to chauffeur her mother for a few hours.

"She'd just call me and I'd fly down and drive her down to L.A.," said the 45-year-old Fremont woman with a career in real estate.

"I guess we always knew some day something would happen and she wouldn't be able to take care of herself. But we never dreamed we'd have the feeling of inadequacy. At first we had no idea what to do, where to go."

With the plane trips and the guilt trips spurred by emergency telephone calls to both work and home, the price they paid for professional help and travel expenses cost a lot in terms of money and even more in emotional stress, they said.

"It's been a very negative thing. It's hurt my work performance periodically. There's a lot of guilt," Bob Leppert said. "Even though you know for sure that you're doing the right thing--that you're protecting her and you're keeping her safe and that's what you're supposed to do--when she tells you to go to hell . . . plus just the knowledge that you're taking her independence away and that she's not going to have her freedom and her dignity . . . it hurts."

The retirement home offers some solace and a supervised atmosphere, one that Finch is learning to like, they said. "She's been calmer toward us, not as bitter," Bob Leppert said.

"Seeing her improve, seeing that she's gained weight, that she looks good--it's something we feel good about doing," Norma Leppert said. "It'll be just one step at a time for us. We don't know what the next one is, though."

'Even though old age is a stage most people will reach, few Americans are emotionally prepared. For some reason, it seems easier to talk about the realities of dying than it is to deal with the problems of aging.' --Dr. Robert N. Butler, former director of the National Institute on Aging and now chairman of the gerontology department at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.

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