Who Will Mother Mom?

Should the responsibility to care for aging parents automatically fall to singles?

Two days after I returned home from my annual Christmas visit with my parents, my father died of a heart attack. Although my dad wasn’t perfect, I did have the illusion that he was permanent. But suddenly, at the independent age of twenty-nine, I was faced with life without my dad—and life with a single mother. Because my father was not a member of the Church and my mother had not grown up in the Church, I found myself responding to questions about the temple and other concerns that I wished I could have asked her when I was a teenager.

I was propelled into a completely different role from that of single daughter. In many ways, I felt as though I was mothering my seventy-five-year-old white-haired mother. She was suddenly talking about her aerobics class and about how hard it was to find LDS single men to date. I felt as though I was her counselor.

Because of their apparently unencumbered status, singles—especially single daughters—often shoulder the responsibility of being the primary caretaker of an aged parent. And yet singles have their own difficult adjustments to make when a parent dies. The emotional adjustment of losing a loved one often occurs when single adults are in the middle of significant life changes themselves: getting involved in serious dating relationships, finishing a college or graduate degree, dealing with the pressures of finances and career advancement. Balancing these pressures with the desire to honor one’s father and mother can create conflicts that add to their already stressful lives. Certainly, where other brothers and sisters exist, it is the equal responsibility of all the children of an aging parent to counsel together and to recognize their equal privilege and duty in caring for that parent.

A single adult’s options—as for all the children of aging parents—include becoming the primary caregiver, paying for outside help or institutional care, or sharing the responsibility for primary care equally with other family members. Choosing from among these alternatives can be difficult, and what works for one family might not work for another. Still, many singles who have chosen to care for an aged parent have found that, through prayer, they are able to handle the responsibility.

Parenting Parents

Some single adults virtually put their lives on hold to care for an ill or dying parent. Not everyone faced with a similar situation would—or even should—make the same decision. But for Sherryl Pulsipher, it was the right one.

At age thirty-one, Sherryl had an exciting career in Washington, D.C., a nice place to live, friends, and involvement in her singles ward. One day she received a letter from her mother in Salt Lake City, indicating that her father was having physical ailments and problems with his memory. When Sherryl went home for a brief visit, her father was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease that was progressing rapidly. With her mother also ill and unable to care for her father, Sherryl consulted with family members, quit her job, and moved into her parents’ home to care for both of them.

Sherryl’s father died two years later. Four years after that, her mother passed away after several months of hospital and institutional care. During those years, her father’s behavior retrogressed to the point that Sherryl sometimes had to chase him down the street when he suddenly decided to go for a walk or take off in the car he no longer had a driver’s license to operate. She also dressed and fed her parents, got up in the night to take them to the bathroom, and often had no social life. She remembers the experience as a twenty-four-hour job. “Sometimes I couldn’t go to church, and at times I felt depressed. But neighbors and family members took over for a while, listened, and supported me.”

More important, Sherryl feels, she made the right choice for her. She has no regrets. “It was what I wanted to do,” she says. “I have learned what it must be like to love a child even though he or she does things you can’t understand. I learned patience, perseverance, and faith.”

She also learned many things about her parents as individuals and developed a much deeper relationship with each of them than she had as a child and teenager. For Sherryl, becoming a parent to her parents offered her a valuable experience in self-sacrifice and service.

Turning to Other Resources

For two single sisters, Debbie, thirty-one, and Barbara, thirty-four, allowing their partially handicapped mother to have greater independence was the best of their alternatives in caring for her. When their father died, their mother was living near Barbara, but later moved to a city forty miles away from Debbie.

Both sisters provide considerable financial assistance to their mother, and several times a week Debbie travels to her mother’s house to help with housework, cooking, and errands. A successful executive with an accounting firm, Debbie is under pressure in her profession, in her personal life, and in her responsibilities to her mother.

Recently, her company offered her a promotion that would mean increased time away from home or even possible relocation. Debbie decided to accept it. “I’m responsible for my mother and need to help her be happy,” she says, “but I don’t feel right now that the Lord wants me to give up my life and opportunities. Fortunately, in our case, there are some things my mother can and should do for herself.”

Barbara also feels that allowing her mother more independence is the best alternative. “Shouldering the responsibility of an aging and handicapped parent can make a single person like me feel even less in control of her own life and happiness,” she says.

It is not always the best solution for unmarried adults to care for a parent. In the Book of Mormon, the Lord tells us that we should “see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” (Mosiah 4:27.) Perhaps professional or institutional care, or help from other family members, would be a better alternative.

Working with the Family

Although Jamie Glenn has not yet served as the primary caretaker for a parent, she does remember the way her entire family helped out when their eighty-year-old grandmother moved in with them. “It was a difficult situation,” she recalls, “because my mother was suddenly responsible for my grandmother, and my grandmother was no longer the head of her own household.” But family members handled the situation with openness and honesty, setting up ground rules, discussing needs, and working together.

The same situation applies to single adults and their married brothers and sisters, who need to work together to find solutions in caring for parents. In his general conference address to the elderly, President Ezra Taft Benson admonished families, not just single daughters, “to give their elderly parents and grandparents the love, care, and attention they deserve. … Remember, parents and grandparents are our responsibility, and we are to care for them to the very best of our ability.” (Ensign, Nov. 1989, p. 6.)

When families work together, the primary caretaker’s burdens lighten and the experience becomes one more of joy and less of duty. Jamie remembers the good times the family enjoyed with her grandmother: “We used to get her to tell stories about when she was young. Then we would tell her stories, too. One night we stood in the kitchen and laughed until we couldn’t breathe over something my thirteen-year-old sister said that tickled Grandma. We grew to know her more and love her more.”

That joy can easily be shared with all family members. Although we usually think of Elijah’s mission in terms of family history, “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers” (D&C 27:9) is equally important for living generations.

We may not be able to change life’s difficult situations, but with faith in the Lord, single adults, instead of being thought of as primary caretakers, can work with other family members to help determine what is best for their aging mothers and fathers—and for themselves.

[illustration] Illustrated by Richard Hull

Loni Manning serves as fellowshipping committee chairman in the Parleys Seventh Ward, Salt Lake Parleys Stake.