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Caring for an elderly parent when you're an only child

November 18, 2011 | 10:30 am

Only childMy friend Martha danced down the yellow brick road of childhood by herself, happy to be the only child of doting parents. She felt no need for brothers or sisters. But when her dad died and her mother developed Alzheimer’s, Martha suddenly felt alone. She lived 2,000 miles away, had a demanding job and desperately needed someone to share the burden, she told me one day as we compared notes about caring for our parents.

My friend had run head-on into one of the major problems that confront children who have no siblings. One is the loneliest number when faced with being the sole caregiver.

Studies indicate that the responsibility of providing care is one of the major fears of an only child. A 2001 survey found it is consistently perceived as a serious challenge, with respondents also noting feelings of anxiety about being the sole survivor in a family after parents die.

With the recession taking its toll on fertility rates and single-child families increasing in number, the problem is growing in scope. In the United States, and in most industrialized Western European countries, families with one child are the fastest-growing type of household. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, single-child families have almost doubled in number to about 1 in 5 in the U.S.

The stereotype of the lonely only child, selfish, spoiled, maladjusted, has begun to fade, thanks in part to recent studies that show only children are as well-adjusted and in many cases more intelligent than those of us with siblings. But being alone when medical, financial and care-giving decisions must be made for parents can throw anyone off balance.

Los Angeles County resident Cynthia Rawls, 56, moved home four years ago to take care of her mom, Ruby, 90, who was showing signs of dementia.

“Our home was always so neat and tidy,” Rawls said, remembering her childhood. “But then my mother began hoarding. She tried to hide her condition for a long time, but she couldn’t anymore. The last four years she’s been on a slippery slope.”

Rawls never enjoyed being an only child. “I was very lonely,” she said. But that feeling was nothing compared with the isolation she felt when she began to care for her mom. “It was overwhelming,” she said.

John Cothren, 65, didn’t miss having siblings when he was growing up because he lived in a city and always had friends. “Houses were so close, you could stick your head out the window and yell for a friend to come over and play,” he said. When his parents fell ill, Cothren, a retired teacher and widower, closed up his home in Indiana, loaded his dog and clothes into his car, and went south to the family farm in Arkansas to help out. He’s been there off and on -- mostly on -- for four years. Cothren doesn’t resent the disruption in his life.

“My dad just turned 87 and has heart problems,” he said. “Mom turned 85; she’s dealing with cancer and some type of dementia. But they will celebrate 68 years of marriage in two days -- that is the upside of helping. “I know they would be in a nursing home if I did not stay.”

His only regret -- and it is a heartfelt one: the time he’s losing with his grandchildren, who are hundreds of miles away.

Many like Cothren soldier on despite the interruption in their own lives. Psychologist Toni Falbo, an only child and the mother of an only child, has studied the role of siblings -- and the only child -- in China and in the U.S. Falbo, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, can look at the sociological and psychological implications of being a solo caregiver with the detached eye of a researcher. But she can also relate: She cares for her mom, Marylou, 89. And she’s happy to do so. “I would never consider it a burden,” she said. “My mother continues to enrich my life." She looks at the caregiver role as a reciprocal responsibility: “She cared for me throughout my life, so it’s only fair that I do the same now.”

Falbo doesn’t waste time wishing for siblings to share the task. And most other solo caregivers I talked with said they felt the same way eventually, even those who initially felt overwhelmed by the responsibility.

“I’ve learned from friends that it isn’t really any better to have brothers and sisters,” Rawls said. “One person ends up doing everything; the siblings don’t help.” She said she realized that she’s actually better off than those caregivers. “I don’t have the resentment they have towards their brothers and sisters.”

My friend Martha found other advantages when she tallied up her ledger sheet: There was no question that she had complete control of her mother’s care. No one could second-guess her decisions. She had power of attorney. She alone would inherit. But those advantages didn’t dispel the sense of isolation.

Rawls has found a solution: She has created her own supportive family made of other caregivers and church members. She calls them “my solace.” She met new friends after contacting the Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center, which holds educational courses and offers other assistance. She also joined a caregiver support group sponsored by the Inglewood Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department.

“This group has become my extended family,” Rawls said, adding that the organizations, and the friends she’s made because of them, have taught her coping skills. “Once I became part of this group, I knew I could survive.”


Cynthia Rawls found help through the Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center, (800) 540-4442. Eleven such centers offer help in the state; each center serves as a point of entry to free or low-cost services available in every county of California. Go to www.cacrc.org or call (800) 543-8312 for Orange County, (805) 962-3600 for Ventura County and (800) 675-6694 for Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Rawls also joined a caregiver support group sponsored by the Inglewood Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department, (310) 412-5338. It's worth checking with your municipality to see whether a similar group meets locally.

Alzheimers Assn. offers 24-hour assistance through its help line, (800) 272-3900. It also offers peer- or professionally led groups for caregivers. Go to the website and search by ZIP Code for a nearby group.

-- Rosemary McClure

It’s All Relative, a column on caring for and staying connected with aging parents, appears monthly. Comments: home@latimes.com.

Illustration credit: Reuben Muñoz / Los Angeles Times

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