It has been a generally happy twelve years since I traded my dysfunctional family for my husband’s stable, nearly perfect one — but I think I made a mistake. My reasoning is this: my mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s, and I have been wheedled into position as her primary caregiver.
It’s not that anyone assigned me this role. It’s that, out of six sons and six daughters-in-law, everyone else is “too busy.” That phrase, in my mind, roughly translates to no one really gives a shit now that she’s not footing the bill for family jaunts to the Ritz. Plus, they know I will pick up the slack.
She has not been an easy personality, and I have to admit that I have not always even liked her.
She is the type of person who really, really values Limoges and Waterford and any other tchotchke with an exorbitant price tag; I value a car with four wheels that can get me to the grocery store. She thinks that anyone who doesn’t know how to set a table like Emily Post is lower-class; I sometimes dig out plastic utensils when all our forks have been mangled in the disposal. She decorates her house with fresh flowers daily; my family vacuums the cat hair off the couch when company is on its way. We are wildly different personalities, and she has pointed out the disparity with a condescending chuckle more than once. And usually in public. I never once imagined I would someday become this woman’s caregiver, the person she relies on the most in the family.
It’s definitely less soul-crushing to be her caregiver than it would have been if dementia hadn’t turned her into a much more palatable person. It has softened her rigidity and all but obliterated her narcissistic snobbery. Her once-biting humor is now toned down, and she no longer puffs up her cheeks and rolls her eyes, mocking every overweight person she sees. She has transformed into an absent-minded, grandmotherly woman, offering Nilla wafers and pats on the shoulder. Her unsureness and dipping mood has shown me a vulnerable, warm side of her.
I suppose I should be grateful that being her caregiver has brought us closer. But, really, much of the positivity I might have felt is overshadowed by a dark resentment. I’ve unexpectedly let go of much of the not-always-so-charitable attitude I’ve had towards her. However, it has been replaced by the resentment I feel towards the rest of the family.
Since my MIL began forgetting birthdays and names and how to use the microwave, there has been a grand diaspora. With each level of her deterioration, more and more family — who, incidentally, live within five miles of her — can’t seem to find the time to stop by or chat with any sort of regularity. Or even answer the phone when she calls.
Somehow, I have become the one to pretty much take care of all the have-to’s, from pill reminders to making sure she eats and bathes. I don’t want to sound martyr-ish, because, in a sense, everyone is “pitching in” what they can. Just this morning, sister-in-law #2 announced that she arranged for our MIL to get a pedicure. It had already been paid for, the text said, and the appointment was at noon. That’s a nice-ish gesture, right? Then she added, “Someone will have to get her there. I’m OOT.” This is about how it always goes.
This “someone” comes up a lot. “My mom’s shoes are too big, someone has to take her to get a new pair”… “She lost her remote control again, so someone has to go help her find it”… “Someone’s got to take her car keys away.” And I think we all know who that someone is.
Brother-in-law #4 announced via text that they will be visiting my MIL Monday morning. This also sounds like a nice way to contribute. But here is why it’s really not: the physical therapist comes at the same time. BIL asks if I can reschedule — and, if I can’t, he can just try again when “we get back from Jamaica.” While we’re exchanging 42 texts, I’m wondering when the hell did I become the caregiver, the personal secretary, and the switchboard operator? “Someone’s really gotta make a calendar so we can all see her schedule,” he suggests.
Not once — and I am not exaggerating — has a single person lifted their hand to lighten the load in any consistent, meaningful way. No one has so much as mumbled an almost-sincere “Just let me know how I can help.” But they do say, “You’re awesome!” or “I could never juggle as much as you!” or “You’re so good at organizing!”
I have come to despise those words. When I hear them, my body tenses and a script runs in my head: “Don’t give me half a Werther’s and a pat on the head so you can feel like you’re one of those well-mannered people who show their appreciation. I don’t want your compliments, I want some fucking help.”
This “You’re awesome!” business reeks of that manipulative thing parents do to get kids to do chores. “You’re the champion bathroom cleaner!” they flatter, and then the little dupe grabs the toilet brush and starts furiously scouring the bowl. As a parent, I can’t say I haven’t done some version of this myself. But, as my MIL’s default caregiver, I am resentful that it’s being done to me. It is not my “chore” to solely take care of the family matriarch. They act like their profuse thanks is enough. It’s insulting.
Friends tell me that I have to gracelessly and resolutely bow out — but how do you leave an 89-year-old with Alzheimer’s to her own devices? I don’t know how this will all play out, but I also know one thing for sure: I am not going to keep being the family “someone.”
You always hear stories about how, when a parent dies, families fissure — almost like whatever tied them together begins to unravel. A sister, who you never imagined was so petty, squabbles over worthless trinkets; a brother, who you always knew as giving and kind, quibbles over $3.27. Some would say that the blinders are ripped off and you can see, without a doubt, who the people you love really are. I feel like I am experiencing something similar, but this time no one has died. I once felt tightly bound to the family I married into. Now as an abandoned caregiver, I feel, most of all, resentment.
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