Living far away from an aging or ailing parent is a burden that only those who have experienced it can understand. Your first instinct is to hop in a car (or onto a plane) to rush to their side when they become ill. But job and family responsibilities don't always allow that and when that parent's ailments become more the norm than the exception, decisions about ongoing care have to be made.
Debbi Campbell of Mount Prospect was the oldest of three girls and the only one who left her home state of Kentucky. When her stepfather passed away in 2005, Campbell felt she needed to step in to help manage the affairs of her mother, Lena Lobb, who started experiencing mini-strokes when she was only in her early 60s and who, by this time, was suffering from dementia.
Her sisters were unable to be of much daily assistance because of their own family situations.
"It is lots of work to take care of someone who doesn't live by you, and even when they do live close you are trying to do for your parents at the same time you are caring for your own family. I paid Mom's bills and managed her money from up here; put money on a phone card for her and bought her toiletries for her and mailed them down," Campbell said.
"She was not good with money and couldn't manage it on her own. For instance, one time she spent $1,000 on a vacuum cleaner.
"It was very hard for me because I would get all of her money organized and she would just spend it on frivolous things. Then I would bring her up here for a visit after she said she wanted to come, and we would get here and she would immediately want to go home," Campbell said. "I was constantly making trips back and forth."
Campbell knows it would have been much easier to deal with her mother if she never left Kentucky, but life, family and her husband's career had dictated where they lived.
"So I did the best I could, lots of times guessing at what she needed," Campbell said. "We talked on the phone often, but I would always hang up feeling frustrated because there was always something happening down there that I couldn't take care of long-distance.
"I was down there visiting often, so I didn't feel guilty. When I was there I stocked her up with nonperishables and then my aunts, who lived nearby, would take her to the store for the other things," she said.
At one point, Campbell moved Lobb into an assisted-living facility in Kentucky. But after only a few months, the staff called and asked that her mother be removed because she was too disruptive, upsetting the other residents.
"She hated it there and didn't bother to hide it," Campbell said.
When her mother developed lung cancer and needed more physical care in 2011, Campbell prepared a room in her own home and moved her mother to Mount Prospect.
"I have wonderful neighbors and friends who took my mother to lunch to give me a break and who helped me with the care of my grandchildren, who I watch while my daughters work. So I managed," she said.
Lobb died nine months later at the age of 77.
Joyce Rahn has lived in downstate Danville for more than 20 years. That is where she and her husband own a highway equipment business and Rahn works full time as the business manager for a Champaign car dealership.
Now that her 85-year-old mother, Edwardine Murphy of Des Plaines, a widow since 2001, is infirmed, Rahn is making the three-hour drive to Chicago every other week in order to keep tabs on her care.
She has a brother and two sisters who live in the Chicago area, but Rahn still feels the need to be involved in her mother's care.
"The biggest challenge is feeling like I am too far away to get there quickly if there is an emergency or just if she needs something day-to-day," Rahn said. "And since she can no longer communicate well, it is hard for me to talk to her over the phone and be sure she is safe and happy. It is also difficult to depend on other people to do things that I would like to be doing myself. In many cases, we are counting on caregivers that we barely know."
Rahn believes it would be much easier on her if she could move her mother somewhere near Danville, but "one of my sisters in Chicago is disabled and Mom wouldn't have wanted to leave her, in particular."
When Murphy was healthier, she wouldn't have considered leaving her extensive network of friends in order to move south, Rahn said.
"But I have found that as people grow older, family takes precedence over friends in their minds," she said. "They want to see their family much more than they ever did before and, in a senior citizen community, the amount (of times) they see their children becomes a reason for bragging. It is sad how many older people at my mother's facility don't have anyone to visit them," Rahn said.
"I would feel much worse about living far away if I didn't have siblings in Chicago. My one sister sees her every week and my brother goes every weekend, even though he travels constantly. Several of the grandchildren also make regular visits.
"But once your parents are no longer well, you can't help but start to feel guilty about the time you cannot be there," Rahn said.
Marilyn Genther's 97-year-old mother, Clara, still lives in the same house in Cincinnati that her mom has lived in since 1945, despite being a widow since 1997. This has been possible thanks to the companionship of Genther's younger brother.
"My brother being there makes it possible for her to stay in the house easily," said Genther, an Arlington Heights resident. "But he works long hours and just had knee surgery, so he can't do everything.
"Two years ago I finally convinced her to hire someone to clean the house and when my brother had surgery, I arranged to have meals delivered after I left."
Genther, executive director of the Mount Prospect Public Library, moved away from Cincinnati to pursue her career in 1979 and has never again lived in Ohio. However, she visits two or three times a year and used to bring her mother to the Chicago area once a year for visits when Clara was younger and better able to travel.
"It is difficult to be so far away because this is my mother and I want to share things with her and show her things, but I can't. Your mother is always your mother," she said.
"Fortunately, she is still very 'with it' and can still handle her own affairs. For instance, I purchased a new Windows 7 laptop computer to replace her XP PC one (because) she was having issues with it. I took care of the ordering for her. Now she is learning Windows 7, which has a learning curve. I showed her a bit when I was there last time, but it takes time to figure it out and she's willing.
"She was a microbiologist, so I think her scientific mind helps her problem-solve successfully," Genther said.
"It seems to have become my role to act as her adviser. She and I talk through decisions over the phone on a regular basis. But I feel badly that I cannot do more. I am fortunate that she has been so healthy, but I know that could change at any point and I might have to jump in the car and manage my work responsibilities long-distance," she said.
"I hope to avoid ever moving her here because she would hate leaving her church and her many friends and everything she knows. I actually don't think she would ever consider it," Genther said. "She's been through several illnesses over the years but she keeps going and has done well, which allows her to be actively engaged."