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The accidental caretakers

December 25, 2007|Heather King | Heather King is the author of the memoirs "Parched" and the forthcoming "Redeemed."

My elderly mother lives in New Hampshire. I'm the oldest of her six kids, and I've been afraid for years that her care would fall solely to me. When her memory recently started failing, I thought: Will I have to give up my life in L.A.? Will I have to move back to her condo and molder away in the pines too?

Instead, when I put out the SOS to my siblings, my little brother, Joe, stepped right up to the plate. "Don't worry, Heath," he e-mailed from China, where he was on tour with his punk band, the Queers. "As soon as I get back, I'll fly up from Atlanta." When I flew in myself from L.A. a few weeks later, he'd already worked wonders: making Mom nutritious meals, overseeing her meds, slipping her nips of Focus Factor.

Though technically middle-aged, Joe and I both remain teenagers at heart, and I don't think either of us could quite believe we were in charge. I was all anxious and fretful, but Joe kept things light. The morning after I arrived, he bounded downstairs in a Ramones T-shirt and mused: "She's kind of like a science experiment. Give her a little food and water, her hair grows, she begins speaking in full sentences."

She had improved, but that wasn't saying much. Mom has always been frugal -- she's used the same apron, spatula and can of turmeric for 40 years -- and she was puttering around upstairs now, looking for the same yellow plastic comb Joe and I both remember from high school.

I had always considered myself "the smart one" of the family, but when it came to discussing Mom's deteriorating condition, I was no good at all. "I'm sorry, Mom," I began sobbing when she came downstairs, "this must be so hard for you." Joe was loving but way more firm. When he spotted her putting the cat turds in a coffee can, wrapping the can in a plastic bag and hiding it under the sink, he urged, "Come on, Mom, how much is a fresh bag of kitty litter?"

"My way is easiest," she stubbornly insisted.

"Well, I don't know if it's the easiest," he shot back, "but it is certainly the most peculiar."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Joe and I both have a history of rather severe substance abuse. There were days, undeniably, when we would have stolen Mom's last buck, so it felt somehow surreal now, getting her financial affairs in order, rifling through her desk shouting "Visa!" "Social Security card!" "Checkbook!" The bills had gotten ahead of her. "That's a collection agency, the one from Tulsa," Joe said knowingly. I got a little assembly line going: I made out the checks, Mom signed them, Joe put on the stamps.

Teamwork had never been my forte, but darned if it wasn't fun bonding with Joe over Mom.

Over the next few days, we went everywhere together: Brooks Drugs, Remick's to arrange for a prepaid burial, Market Basket for groceries. When we weren't doing errands, we were taking Mom to get her hair done, or out to lunch, or to visit nursing homes.

We divvied up the chores at home. Joe cooked and cleaned. I made phone calls, organized documents and lay on the couch poring through an endless pile of elder-care literature. "Hey Joe, get this," I called, reading the fine print in a tax-planning booklet. "Mom's exempt from selling her condo in order to qualify for Medicaid if she has either a minor child, a disabled child or an adult child who's lived with her for at least two years. You've kept your New Hampshire P.O. box, right? If so, you'd qualify on all three counts!"

Meanwhile, Mom was getting so fuzzy she didn't even remember our names. "I'm getting tired of all this!" she complained one morning. "I wish ... Whosie would just leave!"

"I guess she doesn't know you have 28,000 MySpace friends," I told Joe. "Don't worry. I know how important you are."

Joe got me safely back to the airport and Mom safely into a place called Eventide. When I got back to L.A., I sent off a Christmas gift and card saying: "Love to you, Mom, in your new home." Each of my other siblings ended up helping in his or her own way too. That's what Christmas was about for me this year: discovering I don't have to do it alone.

The other gift was knowing who I can call when I reach my twilight years -- because when I'm 80, he'll only be 75: my little brother, Joe.

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