Saturday, March 07, 2009

Caring For Mother

by Annette Leal Mattern

(photo: Tia Lila & Mother)

When my mother reached age 82, it was time for us to make different living arrangements for her. The family had moved out of state and she lived alone since her husband’s death several years earlier. Her health and security began to worry us all, requiring closer and closer attention than was possible with occasional visits and phone calls.

My two sisters and I always assumed that when the time came she would live with one of us three daughters. We even imagined shipping her around so as to always have her in perfect weather, a snow bird splitting her time with the different families. However, when faced with the actual move, she insisted on living on her own with elder care support. Because she had the means and was still fiercely independent, she opted to make her new home in an assisted living facility.

A recent study of core Latino culture, styles and values found that most Latino families bring their aged family members home, whether or not they're able to care for themselves. According to the researchers, traditional Latino families find it natural to integrate multiple generations into the household. The study made me wonder if we were doing the right thing.

This question will face more and more Latino homes in the years ahead. Statistically, the older Latino population is among the fastest growing groups in the nation. The Census Bureau estimates that, by 2020, Latinos age 65 and older will represent nearly 15% of the Latino population. Most will revert to living with family for cultural, socio-economic and practical reasons. And, given the current economy, this trend may increase as more elders find themselves without resources outside of the family.

The importance of family in the Latino culture is paramount. Like many European family values, Latinos hold family at the core of existence. One of the main characteristics of Latino families is collectivism, a psychosocial tendency to view the needs of the family above the individual needs of any of its members. Often leading to sacrifices of the individual, this can be an opportunity as well as a challenge, particularly where the aged are concerned.

Living with family can boost an elder’s sense of purpose, particularly if they are contributing to the wellbeing of the household, caring for children, assisting with household activities, being consulted on matters of the family. This healthy interdependence among the different generations is a powerful testament to the senior person’s value.

On the other hand, many elders need special care, which can strain the household physically, emotionally and economically. Preparation and open discussion of these issues can make the decision less traumatic and the transition more successful for all.

The deciding factor for my mother was the fact that she had heart problems and having medical support available any time of day or night was comforting to her. Fortunately, her resources and independent personality made this a reasonable option.

However, about one in 12 elderly Latinos has no health insurance, so they lack access to quality health care and may be unfamiliar with services available to them. Navigating social services and community resources can be daunting, particularly to an elderly and possibly ill person. Some are uncomfortable in medical environments and intimidated by the system, leaving them with inadequate service or support.

Language can be another barrier as many elderly Latinos are not fully fluent in English and may not be able to advocate for themselves with health care providers. In addition, medical terms are technical and confusing, further challenging the patient who is embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand.

Another significant concern is that over 21% of Latinos aged 65 or older are diabetic. Besides issues of proper medical treatment and management of food-nutrition-exercise programs, future lifestyle issues are a grave matter. Sustaining a quality of life may depend on the family’s commitment to creating and implementing a regular program of strength training and flexibility management, balance and healthy activities.

Some family situations are better suited to caring for an elder than others. Other caregiving concerns center on the individual medical needs of the elder family member. Is there a process to manage medications? Are the caregivers healthy? Will there be need for additional support if care is given in the home?

Caregiving requires additional focus on organization, particularly where elders are concerned. Multiple medications, doctors, insurance and Medicare administration require attention and often involve appeals and reviews. Having a system of management is essential.

Besides the additional work, there is great advantage to bringing elders into the nuclear family. Traditional Latino families strongly identify with the extended family and feel loyal to the members as a group. This is an important value to pass on to younger generations.

Elders also bring a wealth of knowledge and experience, culture and heritage, stories and soul. Listening and supporting them is a gift to everyone involved.

And, each person in the family becomes better when all are treated with dignity, a value often forgotten in our fast-paced lives.

Did we make the right decision to support our mother and her independent life? We think so. But we never take for granted that it is our honor to share the most vulnerable time of her life with her.

What ever your choice, when you look back on the decision from a later point in time, know that you chose thoughtfully the best option for your elder and the best decision for your family. And ultimately, know in you heart that you did the best that you could.

Annette Leal Mattern held numerous corporate leadership positions where she championed development of minorities for upper management. She received the National Women of Color Technology Award for Enlightenment for her diversity achievements and was recognized by Latina Style and Vice President Gore as one of the most influential Latinas in American business. In 2000, she left her corporate work to devote herself to women's cancer causes. Her book, Outside The Lines of love, life, and cancer, helps people cope with the disease. Annette serves on the board of directors of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance and founded the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Arizona, for which she serves as president. Annette also writes for


Anonymous said...

So right you are. My brothers, sister and I are now facing decisions concerning our 85 year old mother, who's not in good physical condition, and unfortunately, whose mental health is fast declining. It breaks our hearts but we're now looking into assisted living for her. Gracias.

Anonymous said...

Although I do agree that some latino families would move their parent in to take care of them, I believe that many latinos out there just are not aware of the other options (that's probably better for Mom/Dad) that are out there. Right now I am searching for an AL for Dad and am having difficulty finding one near me (Long Island, NY) with at least some spanish-speaking residents. My heart breaks to the poor elderly who have absolutely no one to help them. We need to do more. Paz