My Mom Was Too Old

She had me at 42. She got frail before I was ready.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.
What’s it like for twentysomethings to care for aging parents while trying to establish their own careers and relationships?

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

“I’m going to be at your high school graduation, even if I have to show up with a walker,” my mother used to joke during my grade school years. She told me that she would be 60 when I would head off to college, and working backward, I figured out early how old she had been when she had me—42. Over time, she amended her joke to refer to my college graduation. But I never really took it seriously. She was strong, vital, and completely ambulatory, so I found it hard to worry about her.

I always imagined myself in my late 30s, married with a family. I saw my mother as an attentive grandmother, lavishing her grandkids with gifts just as she did with my nieces, eternally calling to tell me about the weather and the outerwear she thought I should put on. My vision did not include a version of her that was feeble or incapable.

But then it happened before I was ready. It began with depression. Typically verbose on the phone, my then-70-year-old mother seemed to have less and less to say. When she did talk, she spoke largely of her loneliness and her headaches. Some days, she wouldn’t leave the house, she told me. Then the weight started to slide off. Never more than five to 10 pounds overweight, my mother lost several pounds quickly, making her seem suddenly frail and elderly. I was 27 at the time.

I was the first to notice these developments. My sister, eight years older than me, lives in New Jersey with her husband and three children. She sees and speaks to my mother less frequently than I do. At one of our semimonthly lunches, I noticed that my mother looked more stooped and too thin. That’s when we began the reversal of roles. I urged my Jewish mother to finish the food on her plate. When I spoke to her on the phone, I asked her what she had eaten that day, what she had to eat around the house, what she planned to eat for the rest of the week, all while the contents of my own fridge largely consisted of condiments and soy sauce packets from sushi deliveries.  

For months we went to doctors looking for some identifiable cause for the headaches, the shakes, the weight loss, and her general diminishment. A psychiatrist put her on an antidepressant but without any discernible results. For a while, she asked me nearly every week to go with her to her appointments, but I only went a handful of times. I’d tell her, far too harshly at times, that if I went every time she asked, I wouldn’t be able to work enough to pay rent. She’d quickly back down, and I’d feel bad about my refusal. I knew she wasn’t trying to impose on me. She was simply afraid. Just as I am—because the outcome determines the future for both of us.

Just before New Year’s Eve in 2011, she fell. She called me from a hospital mere blocks from her house in Brooklyn. “I found myself on the bedroom floor,” she said. At least she was not standing anywhere near the stairs. Nor did she hit any of the heavy wooden furniture near her bed. I rushed over to the hospital, where she had been admitted and was undergoing tests. She hadn’t suffered a stroke, a cardiac event, a fracture, or anything very serious. The gash on her forehead seemed to be the worst of it. Once all of the dire medical causes were ruled out, I was once again left with the reality: I was in my 20s, still figuring out my life, and my mom was on a long, slow decline.  

Last year, New York magazine published story about older parenthood, which provocatively featured a graying pregnant woman, photographed in a pose reminiscent of Demi Moore’s Vanity Fair cover in the early ‘90s. I read this one year into my mother’s aging problems and had a mix of feelings: I was happy that the parents were able to experience the joy of parenthood but also upset that the writer did not pay quite enough attention to how this phenomenon might affect the children. Like my mother used to, the parents in this article noted that they will likely be dead by the time their kids reach their 30s. But that doesn’t cover what those years before their deaths might be like, what it will be like for those twentysomething children to care for aging parents (or at the very least, manage their affairs) while trying to establish their own careers, relationships, and families.

Here is what it was like for me: At the start of my mother’s aging issues, I was still trying to make it as a writer, working as many gigs as I could cram into the day, never quite sure where my next paycheck would come from. It had been years since I had found myself in anything resembling a relationship.

I’d get up in the morning—or in the middle of the night, insomnia dependent—and send out pitches, hoping that I’d sell enough stories that month to cover all of my expenses. (The margins of my notebooks are filled with little columns of numbers, adding up my income totals for the week, month, and year.) At some point every day, I’d call my mother if she hadn’t already called me and ask how she was feeling. “I had a headache,” or “I have the shakes,” she’d typically begin before launching into a host of other things that were bothering her. If I felt particularly troubled by how she sounded, I’d make plans to see her within the next few days at or near her house in Brooklyn. I might also call one of her doctors to see how the most recent visit went.

I might also call her neighbor, a registered nurse, to get her take on the situation. This woman, like most who live on her block, is Orthodox and would invite my mother over for Shabbat meals. I had given up observant Judaism in my early 20s. Though I don’t feel guilty about my religious choices, I do at times wish I had a family and Shabbat table to invite her to since the Sabbath is frequently the loneliest time of the week for her—a day without distractions such as television. Out and about on the other side of Brooklyn, I’d sometimes call and leave messages on her answering machine. I knew she was likely sitting in her recliner, reading a murder mystery, listening to me ramble about whatever I was up to.

When my psychologist recently called me “the dutiful daughter,” I laughed in disbelief. I am the so-called “rebellious” member of my clan—the one who isn’t religious, the one who break dances, the one with a tattoo. How did I end up assuming greater responsibility for my mother than my sister had? I did it not out of duty, exactly, but out of love. I have always been closer to our mother. My sister married young, which left me as a quasi “only child” during my final years of high school. My parents had divorced when I was young, and my dad was not around much. My mother and I also shared similar dispositions—loud, argumentative, and passionate—as opposed to my sister’s more diffident nature. When my sister married, she pulled away from us in favor of the stability and normalcy her in-laws provided. 

Short of becoming Orthodox again—I’m not that dutiful—I tried to come up with other ways to lift her spirits. I met her more often for coffee. I called nearly every day to check in. I hired a personal trainer for her, hoping exercise would improve her mood. I was far less successful in convincing her to move out of her house to Florida where her older sister and husband lived in a retirement community. My mother had never lived outside of Brooklyn excepting the first two years of her marriage, when she lived one borough over in Queens and was ever more apprehensive about change.

“What will I do in Florida?” she asked me. At least in New York, she had some friends (though many had relocated in recent years). She also taught one history class a week at a small college, something she had been doing in the 15-plus years since she retired from the New York City public school system. It was a life, if not quite a full one. Still, she would visit her sister in West Palm Beach, Fla., a few times a year, which is where she was for Passover. I was headed to New Haven, Conn., to spend the holiday with friends.

As I rode the Metro North train, my phone rang. It was my aunt, my mother’s older sister. I panicked. My aunt and I weren’t close, so I figured that something awful must’ve happened for her to reach out to me directly.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You have to move in with your mother and take care of her,” my aunt informed me.

“What happened?”

“She takes too many medications and walks around like a zombie,” my aunt exclaimed. “I don’t know what to do,” she cried out, exasperated.

“I don’t know what to do either,” I said, trying to remain hushed on the packed holiday express. I had spent the previous months consulting with her doctors, including her psychiatrist. I had a spreadsheet of her medications on my computer and have even spoken with the local pharmacist about my mother’s intake.

“You have to move in with her,” she repeated as though I hadn’t heard her the first time.

“Why me? What about Lisa?” I asked my aunt, referring to my sister.

“She’s married and has kids. “You have to do it,” she said firmly. For her, it was non-negotiable.

“But I’m still in my 20s,” I choked out.

As my anger at my aunt’s demand grew, I was reminded of my mother’s own bitterness at taking care of her ailing mother. She was around the same age as I am now and hadn’t shown the same good sense her older sister had demonstrated by getting married young and having kids. It was the ‘60s, and a single Orthodox Jewish woman did not move out of the house. My grandparents forbade her from doing so. So when my grandmother had the first in a series of strokes, it fell to my mother, still living at home, to provide most of the care until her mother’s health declined to the point that she had to be placed in a nursing home.

“I’ll never do that to you,” she often promised me. And she hadn’t. I moved out of the house after I graduated from high school, first for college and then again to Los Angeles. She even acted as the guarantor on the lease for my Brooklyn studio, my first foray into truly solo living.

For the first time in two years of trying to manage my mother’s health, I was furious—at my aunt for her demands, at my sister for not helping out enough. And at my mother for having me at an advanced age, which is about as reasonable as wishing you hadn’t been born.

But how do you avoid this fate? As I near my 30th birthday, still single and working as a freelance writer, I feel guilty for my personal and professional choices. I haven’t exactly created a life that is conducive to caretaking. Maybe I should’ve sat for the LSATs I registered for after college instead of moving cross-country on a whim. Perhaps I should’ve followed through on one of the thousand times I asserted that I would get a real job. Maybe I should’ve kept dating that guy who worked in finance.

I’ve passed up hundreds of opportunities to settle down in some capacity. Which maybe puts me on the same path my mother followed, having a child in my 40s, hoping to make it, God willing, to their college graduation, with or without walker.