Defacto... What?

DEFACTO....We don’t plan on it.... it just happens. Unsuspecting adult children, incrementally caring for aging parents. It’s a subtle progression, starting with simple assistance on things like driving and heavy lifting. A short time into it, we realize we have more control over our own schedules if we make the doctor appointments for them. As their eyesight or memory declines, we start helping with med management and home maintenance. Somewhere along the way, we become the designated Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney. God willing, our parents live long enough – we ultimately become their virtual (unpaid) home health aides, assisting with bathing, dressing, fully administering meds, etc. We become firmly entrenched in their routine, and a kind of implied contract develops. There’s nothing in writing, but our parents know they can count on us. We have become their defacto caretakers. (Oxford defines defacto; In fact, whether by right or not).

Typically, one (lucky) person in the family gets to assume this role, and statistically, this person is the youngest daughter. Case in point, I have a 45 year old friend who has 3 young children, a full time job, a husband, and lives several miles from her ailing 70 year old mother. She has a sister, 13 years her senior, with an empty nest, who lives virtually next door to their mother. Somehow, my friend has become the on-call caretaker. “Why is that?” I ask.

With sugar-coated resentment, she describes the many reasons she assumes this important role. Reason #1- Mom and the sister don’t really like each other. Reason #2 – my friend’s had 13 additional “senior” years with her mother, creating a comfortable familiarity the sister can’t offer. Reason #3 - my friend feels compassion and guilt – both of which motivate her to lean in. Reason #4 – my friend is from a first generation Greek family where it’s culturally inferred that the youngest daughter help with the elders.

I can identify with much of the progression described above...I too am the youngest daughter in a family with a deceased father, 2 (remaining) siblings and a 91 year old mother who happens to live Right. Next. Door. Maybe unwittingly, but also quite willingly, I have assumed the role of defacto caretaker. Thankfully, Mom is very low maintenance and finds great joy in just being alive (usually...). Oh sure, there are times when I feel inconvenienced, unappreciated, and every-once-in-a-while... downright angry. But the overall picture is so much brighter. On a daily basis, I get to experience the awe of sharing Mom’s golden years. And mostly... they’re pretty golden.  

It’s not lost on me that I’m one of the “lucky ones”... that Mom is mentally fit, physically able (today), and can roll with the punches. It could easily go the other way, and life could be a whole lot different for both of us. I hear so many stories of adult children taking care of angry, resentful, and fearful aging parents. My heart goes out to them. Really. Callously said – I guess the gift is that the end is in sight? 

Ultimately, I get to know my mother as never before... for who she is now. Our day to day contact keeps us connected in ways that only time can do. I know what she had for breakfast, and I know how she feels about the dinner I just made her. I know which bills she paid today, and how she feels about each of the service providers she just paid. I know who called this afternoon, and how Mom feels about the conversation she had with the caller. I know how she likes her bed made and which pillow she sleeps with. I know what she needs at the grocery store - before she knows it. I know what she finds interesting, important and funny these days.... all of which have definitely changed over the years. I know which plants she planted in our garden 40 years ago, and which ones she expects to bloom this year. I know how she feels about the course of her life, and what she believes she’ll experience in the next. I know who she wants at her funeral and how she wants to be remembered. Most important is that I know how much she appreciates and loves me for all the day to day stuff I do. I know she thinks of me as her “angel” (her words, not mine...). And I know that she knows she can count on me.  Can there be a better payoff for a job well-done than that kind of gratitude? I think not. It’s really what I’ve wanted from my mother all my life.




Emily Gaffney