Carolyn King Dennis and Helen West-Rodriguez, longtime friends, do a lot together. They even recently vacationed together — with husbands in tow — in Santa Fe.
They first met more than two decades ago, when Dennis was completing advanced clinical pastoral education training at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and West-Rodriguez was a professor of gerontology.
“It’s just been one of those relationships that’s meant to be,” Dennis says. “We enjoy the same kind of sense of humor. Our paths crossed sometimes often and sometimes seldom for the next 20 years or so.”
Through their careers and their work with the Greater Lakewood Shepherd’s Center (Dennis was the executive director and West-Rodriguez was on the board), they’ve always been interested in issues and challenges facing senior citizens.
But it wasn’t until both of their parents began a precipitous decline into old age that they decided they had something more to offer: together, they’ve written a book, called When Mom and Dad Grow Old: Step-by-Step Planning For Families and Caregivers.
“One day, one of us — I can’t remember which one— said: We ought to write a book. It was kind of like saying: We ought to climb a mountain. We’d never done it before, but we thought we’d give it a try,” says Dennis, 65.
Both had different situations with their own parents.
West-Rodriguez’ mother, who was 97 when she died, stayed reasonably problem-free until she neared the end of her life. Though she relied on a lot of help from West-Rodriguez and her husband, there wasn’t reason to intervene until she “began to have some pains and arthritis,” and couldn’t nail down the schedule for taking her pills.
“We finally had to get serious about her living where she could get some monitoring,” West-Rodriguez says.
Her husband, she says, suggested her mother move in with them.
“He’s such a sweetheart,” she says. “But I said: Well, if you never want to go anyplace again … She really wasn’t that much of a pain, but it’s just very confining. It’s like having a baby, only you can’t get a baby sitter.”
She doesn’t mean it to sound harsh, only realistic. Not facing facts about taking care of an aging parent can turn into huge problems later on, she says.
“One of the biggest mistakes is for somebody, say a grown daughter, to say, ‘You don’t have to worry mom. You’re moving in with us.’ Sure, there’s good feeling there, but you don’t really know all the things that’s going to entail.”
Dennis said she learned her lessons the hard way: through experience.
“My father was adamant not to discuss these things; he was a very stubborn old German,” she says. “I’d start to talk about eventualities, and he’d get up and go out of the room. He was going to die right where he was, he’d say.”
Though both women say it’s never too early to start talking to your parents about such things, they stress that while “you can have a goal, you don’t have to announce that goal right from the beginning.”
“Ask your parents where they go to church, who has a key to the house, who you can call if you can’t reach them,” Dennis says. “Ideally, you’ll have enough time to go from those conversations to other conversations about how you’re going to help if something happens.”
The book was written in the form of a daughter’s diary entries, with the authors’ responses to those. At the end of nearly every chapter is a practical worksheet.
“It was just a clever way to get the story told without being pedantic at all,” West-Rodriguez says. “We’re very much aware there’s a lot of information out there for people who are maturing and their children, but very little of it tells you how to apply information to your own situation.”
“We’re really proud of what we’ve done,” Dennis says. “There was a great need for a systematic way to approach the care of older parents.”
To order a copy of When Mom and Dad Grow Old, visit brownbooks.com/authors/dennis. The book is $22.95.
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