In 2009, at age 51, journalist Katie Hafner invited her elderly mother to move from San Diego to San Francisco and live with her and her 16-year-old daughter. Brilliant and funny, Hafner’s mother had also been a divorced alcoholic who lost custody of Hafner and her older sister when they were young girls. As Hafner reveals in the pages of Mother Daughter Me, her sixth book and first memoir, history was not magically forgotten during the misbegotten experiment in multigenerational living. Old resentments soon bubbled to the surface. Personality quirks that seemed endearing from a distance quickly grated. And Hafner found herself sandwiched squarely between her obligation to her aging parent, a woman she barely knew, and her responsibility for her teenager. As Hafner learned – the hard way – families considering such living arrangements should think long and hard before acting. Her book also poses a question central to so many of our lives: What is our obligation to our parents as they age, particularly if they were far from perfect parents when we were children?
An excerpt follows:
My mother and Norm, her partner of 36 years, never married, for what my mother explained were “tax reasons.” They owned a large and comfortable tract house in a drowsy middle-class neighborhood in San Diego. They had few friends, but they had each other. For years they had been slavishly devoted to a series of large German Shepherds – usually two at a time – which they took for hikes every day at a local dog park. And they had Costco, which, near as I could figure, was the only place they shopped.
In their odd and insular world, my mother and Norm weren’t merely glued at the proverbial hip. My mother micro-managed Norm’s every move. When he went to the bathroom she all but paced outside the door until he was back in her hovering presence. His health was basically sound, but she monitored his mild cardiac condition so closely you’d think he’d had a heart transplant. She planted timers strategically throughout the house, set to chime or beep or ring when it was time for Norm’s blood thinner, or cholesterol medicine, or whatever other drug he happened to be on at the time. As suffocating as such a relationship appeared from the outside, it clearly worked for my mother, and Norm seemed to putter through his days happily enough.
As the two of them grew older, doctors’ visits occurred at least twice a week, knees got replaced, teeth crowned, skin cancers lasered away. The dogs became too much to handle and my mother resignedly placed the last remaining dog in a new home. Then one day, Norm strained a muscle in his back while lifting a flat of plants. He was in terrible pain, and from then on grew increasingly anxious about being left alone. Whenever my mother tried to leave the house, Norm panicked and asked her to stay. In retrospect, this may well have been the first sign of dementia. And there were innumerable other little signs, along with a few doozies, like the time he accused my mother of getting his socks “all wet” when he had in fact opened his bureau drawer and sent a stream of pee straight into it. Overwhelmed, my mother called me several times a day for support and advice. The support was easy, but having never been the life partner of an 84-year-old man who was unraveling, I could offer little advice.
These are the stories you hear about the elderly. One thing happens and it triggers a cascade of other debilitating incidents, the seriousness of each new event compounded by whatever preceded it. And now my mother and Norm were living a textbook case of this downward spiral.
One afternoon a few weeks after Norm’s back sprain, my mother called me with surprising news. Norm’s daughter, Paula, had driven Norm to the doctor that morning. On the way back she called my mother to say her dad wanted to go home – not to his own house but to the house Paula shared with her mother, Norm’s ex-wife. My mother sounded like she was in shock. I told her I was sure everything would soon settle down, that Norm would get better and go home. In my own mind I had never considered any scenario other than one in which Norm and my mother would navigate advanced old age together.
Sure enough, after looking after her father for a few days, Paula called my mother to say that Norm was too heavy a burden for her. But this was an egg that couldn’t be unscrambled. Just a few Norm-free days were enough to give my mother some perspective. With Norm now in constant pain and his dementia growing worse, my mother now knew that she wasn’t up to the task of caring for him either. And she didn’t know what to do.
I had landed a role in the Aging in America script as we have come to know it, part of the sandwich generation of middle-aged adults caught between teenage kids and aging parents. I flew to San Diego. My mother, thin and frail, was doing all she could to appear chipper. Within thirty seconds, though, I could tell she was in no position to take care of Norm, even if he were to decide to return. She was still hobbling from knee replacement surgery a few months earlier. On top of that, she had developed severe carpal tunnel syndrome, making her right hand numb and weak, and would need wrist surgery for that sometime soon.
We needed a different arrangement not only for Norm, but for my mother as well. For several months, my mother and I had been discussing the possibility of having her and Norm move to San Francisco. While she had resisted the idea at first, her attitude toward her progressive disabilities was shifting on the Kübler-Ross scale, from denial to acceptance. While my mother was game, Norm was opposed to the idea of such a big change. Now, within hours of my walking through my mother’s front door, she told me she had made up her mind: she would be moving to San Francisco, Norm or no Norm.
Within a few months, my mother’s quiet life of carefully prescribed routine had become a clanging mess. Impressively, she kept her head high. My mother decided to sell the house. She hired a professional “downsizer” to help her sort through four decades’ worth of accumulation. The house hadn’t reached a level of pathological clutter, but there was certainly no shortage of stuff, all of it relatively well organized and much of it a testament to hundreds of hours spent at Costco: roll after roll of paper towels, dozens of flashlights, reams of paper and file folders, and countless tools and canned goods.
A dozen steel file cabinets were spread around the house, jam-packed with pay stubs, credit card bills, receipts, work documents and health plan descriptions.
My mother had decided she’d be content in an independent living place of some kind. That made sense, but it also reminded me that my 77-year-old mother was now heading down that one-way road we all dread: first independent living, then assisted living, followed by planetary exit.
Finding a suitable independent living arrangement was problematic. The San Francisco Bay Area is expensive to begin with, and growing old in comfortable fashion is even more so, as I was about to discover. I consulted a woman who specializes in placing seniors in independent and assisted living communities. We discussed a half-dozen possibilities, and thick brochures from places with names like “The Sequoias,” “Sterling Court,” and “Drake Terrace” began arriving in the mail. But they were all “buy ins,” which means that you pay several hundred thousand dollars up front; in return, you get a “membership” of sorts. On top of that, you pay rent for your apartment, which can run as high as $6,000 every month. Who could afford this? Moms and Dads of the Silicon Valley crowd, no doubt, but not my own fixed-income parent. Or me. As the search progressed, my mother began getting cold feet. Even if she found an affordable place, she said, she wasn’t sure she was ready to join a retirement community.
Next we explored the idea of finding her an apartment close to Zoë and me. My mother requested that I find her a building with a doorman – a rarity in San Francisco. Nonetheless, I scored almost immediately, with a one-bedroom apartment in a building a mile from my own. The distance felt just right. The apartment itself was small but otherwise perfect. Pleased with myself, I sent my mother iPhone photos, including one of Abdel, the doorman. She didn’t like it; it was too close to the street. Nor did she like any of the other apartments I looked at over the next week.
With each day, her desire became clearer: she wanted to live not merely near me, but with me. She didn’t say this outright, but I could tell it was where she was headed. While it wasn’t my initial choice, I began to warm to the idea. If I went out of town, she’d be there to stay with Zoë, a luxury for a single parent, to be sure. And I wouldn’t have to travel – even a mile – to see her. We’d need a bigger place, which would cost more, but she could help pay for it. These pragmatic advantages were nice, but there was something deeper: this was finally my chance to have a real family home, three generations living side by side, making up for many years of lost time.
I decided that having her live with us was the solution. One afternoon, I called her to suggest it, and she was thrilled. For my part, I was guided by a combination of love, protectiveness, and, as I would eventually come to see, magical thinking. I believed we were as close to the mother-daughter ideal as two women could be. We often spoke several times a day. I confided everything to her. I told myself I had long since put any lingering anger about my childhood behind me, that I had taken the ultimate high road. And I had little tolerance for those who harbored bitterness toward their own mothers for transgressions far less serious than those my sister and I had had to endure. With a transcendent eye, I now see that it’s far easier to imagine a future we can invent than to reckon honestly with a painful past.
Katie Hafner is a journalist and writes for the New York Times on technology and healthcare. She is the author of Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir.