Althea Evans was an active, adventurous girl who loved horseback riding and field hockey. She was married at age 27 to Irv Megargee, and with him raised seven children in a big house in the resort town of Ocean City, N.J. "Her life in adulthood was pretty much taking care of everybody else and doing whatever everybody else needed her to do," says daughter Kate Megargee, the middle child of the seven.
After Irv died in 1997, Althea stayed in the family home. She lived there on her own even after two serious medical events, a heart bypass in 1999 and bi-lateral knee replacement operation in 2004. Kate, a freelance television producer and actor, lived less than two hours away in Pennsylvania and visited regularly. But she worried about her mother, especially after Althea was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a spinal column and nerve condition that causes pain, weakness and difficulty walking. So Kate was relieved when Althea decided in 2007 to move to a retirement community where a friend lived, not far from Kate.
As Althea planned the move, "things started falling apart for her physically," Kate says. The spinal stenosis got worse, and treatments didn’t help. "What she thought would be this fun time of being involved in all the retirement community activities really didn’t happen for her," Kate says. The time Althea expected to spend making friends in her new community was instead spent lining up new doctors.
As medical issues mounted, Althea needed more care; in February 2010, she moved into an assisted living setting. One bout of vertigo took six weeks to resolve. She was diagnosed with sleep apnea, and sleep deprivation left her increasingly depleted and confused. Kate began attending her mother’s doctor’s appointments, to be sure Althea mentioned all her complaints and to write down doctors’ instructions.
"The doctors we deal with are very good and hardworking and considerate," says Kate. "But there are so many of them: general practitioner, cardiologist, gynecologist, neurologist, podiatrist, pulmonologist, sleep specialist, eye doctor, pain doctor, dentist..." The burden of illness became so emotionally overwhelming that Althea, now 89, was diagnosed with depression adding one more provider, a psychiatrist, to the list.
While Althea’s other children help as they can, responsibility for most of the care falls to Kate, the only sibling who is single and childless. "I’m glad I’m here to help her, but it’s a lot of work, and getting to be more and more," says Kate. "Now I’m writing checks to pay her bills because she doesn’t feel sharp enough. I’m managing her household stuff as well as mine. I’m working with the mail-order pharmacy to be sure we don’t run out of her medications — or mine."
Kate has diabetes, for which she wears an insulin pump. But as she focuses on her mother’s health care, her own sometimes becomes an afterthought. "I definitely would marry for health care," she quips, but there’s a bitter edge to the joke. Taking a fulltime, full-benefits position might mean hiring aides to do things she now does with Althea, and she has yet to make her peace with that. "I just hope I stay fairly healthy and get some more work," she says.
"I told a friend recently that taking care of my mom is a part-time job — and she said, 'No, it’s not, it’s your fulltime job.' I have so many friends now who are in the same boat, taking care of one or both of their parents, or uncles or aunts.
"When somebody you love is elderly and you know that taking care of them isn’t necessarily going to put them back on their feet, that’s very difficult," says Kate, her voice breaking. "It’s not like what I’m doing is going to mean that my mother will be restored to what she was before. This is just trying to make it easier for her."
"I’m so grateful that I’ve had my mother all this time and have been able to take care of her," Kate says. "But it gets to a point where it takes everything out of you, it really does." /a>