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The Anguish of a Caregiver's Life

I've been a caregiver for as long as I can remember. Even as a little girl, maybe at age five or six, I was wetting face cloths and wringing them out to put them on my mother's head to ease what must have been severe migraines. I don't know exactly what her medical situation was, but she often walked out of the house, fainted, and had to go to a hospital. Since my father was a circuit rabbi and had to travel to different Jewish communities in Wisconsin to make a living, I was often placed in a Jewish orphanage and stayed there until my father returned.

When I was nine and my brother was born, she seemed to get better, but when I was a teenager, she often wound up in the hospital again. I took care of the house, and of her, whenever possible. When I received my driver's license in my twenties, I took her to her doctors' appointments, as neither she nor my father drove.

Then it was my father's turn to get sick. I became his driver as well. He was an easy patient, quiet and not demanding, so it really wasn't a problem to help him when I could. When he became very sick with a bad heart, I left a job as a Sunday School principal and art teacher in Los Angeles to return home and be closer to him. I had married just months before he wound up in his final days in the hospital. I was pregnant when he was fighting for his life. He died only a few months before my son, Michael, whose name he bears, was born.

Unfortunately, my days of taking care of sick people were far from over. Michael was diagnosed with severe asthma when he was two, and we made many visits to an emergency room. Once, when he was around nine and supposed to go to a birthday party, he couldn't stop coughing and had trouble breathing. I spent several nights sitting in a chair next to him in a ward at Children's Hospital. His asthma continued through his teen years, and after.

Then, to add to my caregiver duties, my mother had a debilitating stroke when Michael was seven. I had to leave him with a neighbor and rush to my mother's house and the hospital where she was taken; I stayed there for 48 hours straight until my brother could fly in.

After that, it was a juggling act between taking care of my stroke victim mother — who had aphasia, and couldn't speak or be understood well, and whose right arm and right leg were paralyzed — and Michael with his frequent acute attacks of asthma. Though I had a cousin who said, “Put her in a nursing home,” I refused to have her live anywhere but in her own house. So I would stay with her while Michael was in school, and then go home to take care of Michael. It helped that we lived only four blocks away.