On this particular visit, I noticed their apartment was messy. The beds were made, but there were dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and on the stove. A half-full carton of milk was left open on the counter and there were crumbs all over the floor. In the bathroom I couldn't see the countertop underneath the dozens of pill bottles, sundries and cosmetics. Soiled clothes were strewn around the floor of the bathroom and bedroom instead of in the empty hamper. All of the wastebaskets were overflowing of trash.
Exasperated, I stormed into the living room where Mom and Dad sat watching TV and yelled, 'What's going on here? Why is this place such a dump?' The minute I said it, I knew it was overkill. Mom was too shocked to respond.
Instead of pursuing the subject, I simply started cleaning. It took me four hours to wash all the dishes, scrub the floors, vacuum, sweep the patio, clean the bathrooms, bathe their little poodle, and do laundry.
The next day, I noticed Mom was wearing the same stained clothing she had on the day before. I suggested she put on a fresh outfit but she refused. That evening I sat with her on the sofa. 'I'm worried about you, Mom. Why are you not taking care of yourself and your home?' I asked.
'I just don't have as much energy as I used to,' she said. 'The place gets cleaned when the cleaning lady comes every other week.'
'That's not enough,' I said. 'A filthy environment isn't healthy.'
'Mind your own business,' she admonished. 'We're doing fine and I don't want strangers in my home.'
We agreed to increase the housekeeper's visits to twice a week and I went home to Denver. Two weeks later my brother called to say Mom had told the cleaning lady to go back to every other week and the apartment was a dump.
I am the eldest child and the classic dutiful daughter. With a grown stepson, I was deemed by the family to be the one to work out a solution for our parents. I agreed to come for another long weekend with Mom and Dad.
The weekend turned into a week. By week's end, I had made some serious decisions. My husband agreed that we should quit our jobs, sell our home and move to California. I envisioned finding a team of professionals to care for my parents in the first month and then seeking a new corporate job.
Nothing went according to my plan. I hired caregivers and my parents fired them the next day, or made their lives so miserable they quit. They wanted me to be their caregiver. They got used to my support. Within two months I knew I was taking an indefinite time-out from my career. My husband went back to work full-time and I became a family caregiver.
My ego took a huge hit because I no longer had the corporate vice president title. I was living with a double-edged sword -- enjoying my time with Mom and Dad but feeling as though my identity had been taken away. Managing medications, taking them to doctor's appointments and cleaning house daily was very different from writing proposals and presenting plans to executives.
Several months after moving, a friend offered me some freelance writing assignments. While freelancing, I realized how difficult it is for working caregivers to manage even a part-time job, let alone a full-time one, with the flexibility associated with caregiving.
With so many Boomers facing the issues of caring for their parents, I decided to write a book and share the eight 'footprints' -- qualities that served me on my path -- The Heart Way: A Journey from Corporate to Care. One of the most important footprints is common courage, something most of us summon daily. It's the courage to walk out of a meeting with an abusive boss or take the car keys away from your father who shouldn't be driving. The journey to care requires taking action in spite of our fears, being committed to an outcome while doubting we can achieve it. It takes courage to ask for support when we are burned out because most of us have never been trained to do it. It takes courage for our friends to suggest we might need more help.
If you or someone who loves you thinks you are losing sight of your own well-being by trying to balance caregiving and work, take the American Medical Association's 'Caregiver Self-Assessment' test.
Check your local caregiver resources. Consider joining a support group. Sometimes the best support comes from people who share your experience.
Repeat this affirmation daily until you truly embrace it: 'I now allow others to love and support me'. Having the courage to allow others to help us balances out the care we give and makes us feel whole.
For more information about Shannon Ingram's book: The Heart Way: A Journey from Corporate to Care
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