When Is it Time to Put an Ailing Parent in a Nursing Home?

When her mother, Caroline, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a dozen years ago, 58-year-old Mary Dickson didn't think twice about becoming her caregiver. She became her legal guardian and learned to master the ins and outs of Social Security, Medicare and health insurance policies.

For 10 years, Dickson kept Caroline at home. But as her condition worsened, it became increasingly difficult--and increasingly pricey--for the Virginia office manager to care for her mother. Eventually Caroline needed round-the-clock helpers, which cost about $15,000 a month. Caroline had some money, but it was quickly dwindling as the bills added up. “It was so expensive,” says Dickson.

Worse, her mother disliked the homecare workers, who traded off shifts. “She did not like all these different people coming in,” says Dickson. But Caroline couldn’t be left alone. “She would never take her medications. She would leave the stove and portable heaters on. She wouldn’t eat.”

So two years ago, Dickson finally made the difficult decision to move her out of her home and into a Virginia Beach nursing home. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, driving her there,” says Dickson. But looking back, she says it was a blessing. She felt reassured to know that her mother was never alone. And the nursing home was close to Dickson’s office, so she could eat lunch with her regularly.

Not everyone understood Dickson’s decision to put her mother in a facility. But she has no regrets. Her advice to others who find themselves in her position: “Try not to be offended when you tell people she’s in a nursing home, and they say, ‘I would never put my mother in a nursing home.’ I just chalk that up to ignorance.”

The nursing home cost $5,500 a month--much less than home care had. And once Caroline moved to the hospice area of the home, Medicare covered most of the costs of her drugs. Dickson visited her mother several times a week. It was tough, she says, to watch her struggle with Alzheimer's. “It was always a rollercoaster ride." Dickson once brought her infant grandson to visit. Though her mother smiled, Dickson was unsure if she understood that she was a great-grandmother. She felt sure, though, that her mother enjoyed it when she stroked her hair, kissed her and held her hands.

To cope, Dickson tried support groups, but found some members frustrating. “They wouldn’t admit they were tired and angry and didn’t want to do it any more,” she says, so she stopped going. She had much better luck with her local Alzheimer’s Association, which put her in touch with a family service specialist who gave her ideas, suggestions and answers when she felt “desperate or alone in this fight,” she says.

In February 2010, her mother lost her battle with the disease at the age 91. “I took off my purple Alzheimer’s band and laid it by her picture at her memorial service," says Dickson. "But I will not stop working for a cure.”

For more information on Alzheimer's, check out the Alzheimer's Association website

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