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Family | For those caring for an elderly or infirm mom, every day is Mother's Day

Issue: "No way out," May 13, 2006

Tina Taylor is always well turned out. She has her short, white hair done every week, wears colorful blouses with neatly pressed slacks, and wouldn't dream of leaving her apartment without a coat of Toasted Almond lipstick, carefully applied.

But these days, Mrs. Taylor's daughter, Mary Ann Rinnert, picks out her clothes for her, laying out the next day's wardrobe the afternoon before.

"I go to my closet and can't remember what I'm supposed to do," Mrs. Taylor tells her daughter.

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"That's okay, Mom," Mrs. Rinnert replies. "I can do that for you."

Mrs. Taylor is, after all, 100 years old. The centenarian lives at the Beatrice Hover Assisted Living Center in Longmont, Colo. Her daughter, Mrs. Rinnert, lives nearby and visits Mrs. Taylor at least twice a day, sometimes more.

Mrs. Taylor calls Mrs. Rinnert, 65, "my miracle."

"That's because I'm her only child and since she had me at age 35 after 17 years of marriage, I'm still here when she needs me," Mrs. Rinnert said. "She's outlived almost everyone else."

Mrs. Taylor is in the vanguard of a demographic explosion, a surging growth in the number of people living into their 80s, 90s, some beyond. The number of Americans living past age 65 is expected to double within the next 25 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2030, almost one in five Americans-some 72 million people-will be 65 years or older. The age group 85-and-older is now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.

Among multiple catalysts fueling the increase: erstwhile medical wonders (now taken for granted) like penicillin, routine organ transplants, and the virtual eradication of once-deadly diseases; technologies and medicines that prolong life for people with chronic conditions like diabetes; an overall rise in the American standard of living; and advances in preventive medicine.

Still, age, illness, or both eventually come calling, creating an increasingly common family paradigm: Where Mom was always the caretaker, millions of Americans are now taking care of Mom.

"There's a big shift occurring now in institutional medicine," said Harold G. Koenig, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center. "The bottom line is that the system is running out of money. People's hospital stays are shorter and shorter, they go into nursing homes sicker and sicker, and lines to get into good nursing homes are getting longer and longer."

Those trends combined with the growing senior population are pushing health care "more and more into the community, and more and more into private homes, as people try to grapple with parents and grandparents suffering chronic illnesses," Dr. Koenig said.

Estimates vary on the number of people nurturing an aging mother, father, or other relative. A study of family or "informal" caregivers published this year by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) puts the number at 27 million. In a 2005 report, the AARP estimated that more than 44 million Americans are caring for another adult, age 18 or older. Among those being cared for in the 65-and-older population, about 42 percent suffer from some kind of disability.

Not Tina Taylor-she's just getting on in years. So Mrs. Rinnert, a retired elementary-school teacher, visits with her at Beatrice Hover, drives her on errands, and takes her out to eat. "What she needs from me is just to be there," Mrs. Rinnert said. "She just feels like as you get older, you need the people around that you care so much about."

Mrs. Taylor was born in northern Missouri in 1905 to a family of 10 children, and her father was a farmer. "But not a very good farmer," said Mrs. Rinnert, laughing. "He much preferred writing poetry," an avocation he passed on to his daughter, Tina (pronounced "Ty-nah"). Today, she keeps a book of her own poetry-some of it written more than a half-century ago-in her apartment. She shares it only with special, trusted visitors like Herb Herbert.

Mr. Herbert, 54, is a volunteer with LifeBridge Community Church (LBCC), where Mrs. Rinnert is a member. He is one of four people who bring Mrs. Taylor communion each week. A devout Southern Baptist, she was accustomed to cozy country churches before moving from Missouri to be near her daughter; LBCC's 3,000-soul Sundays overwhelm her. (Then there's all that loud guitar music.)

So Mrs. Taylor worships at Beatrice Hover's chapel and LBCC keeps in touch via weekly communion visits. "I think she really appreciates it because she doesn't have a lot of contact," Mrs. Rinnert said.

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