I am a Millennial. I have a bachelor’s degree and I love the arts. Ideally, I should be living in an upscale Live-Work-Play community in East Atlanta, working for an innovative new startup. My summers should be consumed by roadtrips to music festivals, my winters defined by epic underground parties. Cell phone ads, alcohol billboards, and Instagram feeds of influencers tell me I need these things to be a proper young adult in the 21st Century. But my life could not be more different. Last year, my weekdays, weekends, and all four seasons were all spent the same way — living in a retirement community with my parents.
Yes, you read that correctly. A young woman with everything to live for has chosen to forego a trendy, social-media worthy lifestyle for a life consisting of medication management and doctors’ visits. You see, my parents are part of the Baby Boomer generation. According to comprehensive studies conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association, twenty-eight million adults born between 1946 and 1964 will develop some form of dementia. My mother, born in 1954, just so happens to be one of these adults.
In 2013, I left my full-time job in the healthcare industry to stay at home with my mom. Initially, my time was dedicated to attaining a proper diagnosis for the unusual symptoms we witnessed. Uncharacteristic outbursts, unprovoked crying, and an inability to remember very recent events are just a few of the things that prompted my family to begin further exploration. Once we received two misdiagnoses and a final diagnosis of Frontotemporal Dementia, a rare form of dementia characterized by severe personality changes and affecting younger people than Alzheimer’s, I became a full-fledge caregiver and took on responsibilities ranging from monitoring my mom’s meds (because day-of-the-week pill boxes only work if you know what day of the week it is), feeding and bathing my mom (because at one point, severe urinary tract infections caused loss of her motor functions), and preparing my dad’s clothes and lunch for work every evening.
At the time I decided to leave a job it took me months to get, I assumed my role at home would be temporary; we would eventually hire home health nurses to come in for 8 hours per day while my father and I worked. Then reality set in. The reality that home healthcare is expensive. The reality that it takes a tremendous amount of time and dedication to find qualified healthcare professionals who will treat your loved one like a member of their own families. The reality set in that this would be my new normal for the foreseeable future.
Four years later, and not much has changed other than the setting. We’ve moved from the super suburbs of Atlanta to Barbados, back to Atlanta. In 2016, we found ourselves in a retirement community just outside of Georgia’s capital city. Unlike some facilities, this particular location allows a family member or two to live with their loved one, in an attempt to make an easier transition for everyone involved.
When we first arrived, I was pretty overwhelmed. What am I doing here? This is so not where I imagined myself at 32 years of age. But the same day we moved into the retirement facility, my dread quickly changed to gratefulness as I received word that while at work my father had suffered his third stroke. Thankfully, my father has recovered well. But during his hospital stay, having the assurance of three daily meals delivered to our door and healthcare professionals just a pull-cord away was comforting.
Once my father was released from the hospital and we finally began to settle into our new home, we had the opportunity to interact with some of the other residents. And you know what I discovered about these octogenarians? They are pretty neat. They have histories, but they also have present lives. They have gut-busting senses of humor. And most importantly, they want all the same things any thirty-something might want. Good food, great friends, music that makes them want to dance, and romantic partners that make their heart skip a beat (well… you get the point). They want to be human, and to continue being human for as long as they possibly can. Some folks can do that without much assistance, while some folks — like my mom — need varied amounts of assistance. But whatever the case, everyone deserves to live the fullest life possible until they can live no more.
Over the last year-and-a-half or so, I’ve begun to describe myself as a kind of activities director for my parents. I find activities, including some of those made available at the retirement home, that provide opportunities for my mom to laugh, listen to music, and just feel like a normal person. These things seem so simple, but it is these very things that can make or break someone’s spirit.
Opportunities for normalcy may not extend the length of my mother’s life, but they certainly do much to increase the quality of her life. So if that means I don’t get to get in Formation at the Beyoncé concert or that I miss out on all of those awesomely awkward Tinder dates, then those are sacrifices I am willing to make. Because there will always be tours featuring dynamic artists and apps designed to bring people together based on the shallowest of criteria. But I only have one set of parents. Parents who raised me well and who encourage me daily to pursue my own aspirations of graduate school and dreams of improving the world through social entrepreneurship. Parents who often feel guilty for “holding me back,” but from whom I’ve received an invaluable lesson on what it truly means to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, ‘til death.
We no longer live in the retirement community as it is cost prohibitive and frankly, over time, we realized that we wanted to go back to the drawing board to find a better fit. I am still a fulltime caregiver for my mother and we’ve found a condo closer to the city’s young population but still close to healthcare professionals. The compromise in location has proven helpful. However, I do reflect fondly upon my time with the senior set. My millennial life amidst my elders was indeed an unconventional one, but I am thankful for my close relationship with my parents and intend to use the wealth of information I learned there to live a life full of purpose, gratitude, and humility.