Yes, in fact, sometimes it does happen more than once. People work hard, get out of debt, and then end up in debt again later. Life happens. We all like to think that once we’re out of debt, we’re done with that part of life, and can move on. I certainly did.
At first it didn’t seem so bad. You do what you must do. My mom moved in with me in 2018, right after I moved to Colorado’s western slope to “retire” and travel around building a landscape photography workshop and tour business. That was the plan, anyway. I thought I could do it no matter what. I was wrong and I’ll explain.
In the decade before my retirement, I paid off all my debt except for my mortgage. The university I was working for at the time, a private-non-profit international school, decided to cease operation and sell off its campus. At that time, I didn’t feel like I wanted to be the one to lay everyone off and then get laid off myself (been there, done that!). I resigned my position there after almost six years and did some temporary and part time work while I decided what I wanted to do next. I also did a little traveling, visiting Oahu and The Big Island of Hawaii, and London, some places I had wanted to visit and photograph. I paid cash for all this, no credit involved and no problem.
After doing this for about a year, I realized that I could eliminate my mortgage entirely, because home values had increased significantly. I now had enough equity that I could retire completely, downsize, and spend my time exploring western Colorado and The Colorado Plateau, photographing those areas extensively. Seemed good. I was 60 years old at the time. This is what I proceeded to do.
So, after selling my 2400 square foot home on a lake in Westminster, just north of Denver, I packed up and moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, to what is called The Grand Valley. It’s a beautiful place and surrounded by ever more beauty everywhere, which is perfect for a landscape and nature photographer! I bought a little house here, cutting my living area in half. It seemed ok though because I really didn’t plan to be here all that much. I paid cash for my home. So far, so good.
The house was under contract, and we hadn’t even moved in yet, when I was notified that my mother, then in her middle 80’s, would need to be relocated back to Colorado. She had been living in Michigan with her sister, who had been diagnosed with dementia, and would be moving into a long-term care facility. I made arrangements to have Mom moved back to Colorado and I made my spare room, which was going to be my at-home office, into her room. Again, it was an inconvenience, but not something one wouldn’t do for their own mother. I decided I would keep Mom with me for the next few months and I would be able to keep an eye on her physical health and see if it seemed like she was able to get her own place, which is what she really wanted to do.
There are plenty of details I’m going to leave out of this story intentionally, but let’s just say that Mom’s condition continued to deteriorate, and it didn’t get easier. At first, we were excited about our new location and spent evenings cruising around photographing the beautiful orchards in springtime that are Palisade, Colorado. Mom came with us about once a week. Soon, it became more difficult for her to leave home because of physical reasons. At one point, her doctors came out to the house to check on her living conditions and did an old-fashioned house call. It was during this visit that we got her initial diagnosis of dementia. They suggested we make a few changes so that it would be safer for her physically, such as picking up throw rugs and installing handrails in the shower. We made the necessary changes and life continued, with Mom’s condition deteriorating rapidly, both physically and mentally. She was re-tested cognitively every 6 months and her numbers continued to drop. Her physical condition also continued to get more perilous and difficult to manage, and so, in the fall of 2020, she moved to an assisted living center. Yes, it was during the pandemic, but the vaccine was set to be rolled out, and Mom ended up being one of the first to receive it, for which I was grateful.
We noticed a temporary reprieve in the level of caregiving required of us right after that, as the assisted living center was primarily responsible now for her daily care. We had a little window of time open where we were able to get out of the house for long weekends. We visited many national parks and monuments in our area during that time. I still didn’t want to be gone from home for too long, because every time we did, it seemed like Mom would have an emergency. For instance, during the two nights we were staying in Death Valley National Park, and without phone service, Mom fell out of bed and ended up in the emergency room. I didn’t find out about it until we got back to a populated area in Nevada that had cell service and got the voicemail message from the assisted living center. Mom was not seriously injured during that fall, but they sent her to the ER out of an abundance of caution. Normally, I would have been there to take care of her, but I wasn’t that night.
What did happen after that, is that Mom’s condition continued to get worse. Soon, she was being treated for numerous different conditions that required 3 or 4 different medical appointments every week. Just transporting her to these various appointments was a challenge, as she had serious mobility issues by this point in time. This is how we spent the last 6 months of Mom’s life.
I know, and have been told from an early age, that “some things are just not discussed.” This is one of those things perhaps, but one piece of information that might be helpful for others to know who may be facing a similar situation, is that being the caregiver for someone in the final stages of life is very much all-consuming. I found it quite difficult to think about much of anything else, or to make plans for much of anything else or, at times, to even be aware of anything else. The world continues to turn around you, and you’re living life in the vortex. I liken it to entering a spiral, like a type of labyrinth perhaps, in which at first it doesn’t seem so tight. You know you’re there, and that you’re on this path and you won’t be turning back, but you don’t realize how tight it’s going to get as you move towards the center of the spiral. And then one day the spiral relaxes, and you find yourself floating free. You’re in grief, and you’re not sure what happened.
Meanwhile, as you’ve been traversing this spiral, the world has continued to turn around you. At one point, in an earlier stage of this journey, I fell off a cliff at a local park. I got knocked out and I ended up in the ER. I wasn’t seriously hurt, but I did have some scrapes and bruises. It took me a couple of months to fully recover. I wasn’t eligible for Medicare yet, and I ended up with $10k in medical bills for a 4-hour ER visit. Yes, I had medical insurance I was paying an arm and a leg for at the time, but this is the amount I was responsible for. I didn’t have $10k. You can guess what happened. Then, my car was sideswiped by a (probably) drunk driver one night when it was parked in front of my house. It was totaled. I had to buy another vehicle. You can guess what happened.
As old sailor’s say, “rust never sleeps.” Things wear out and need replacement. You can count on it. I didn’t. This year, I needed a new roof. You can guess what happened. Add into all this a world-wide pandemic that kept everyone at home for at least a full year if not longer, and it really started to get weird. My business plans were scuttled. No one was traveling or doing photo workshops during that time. Some people, who had been running travel and workshop businesses for several years already and had a clientele were able to keep going but starting anything new was not in the cards.
On to plan Z …
And so at least for now, it looks like my retirement years are over and I’ll be “unretiring” soon. In retrospect, I can say I’m grateful that I wasn’t working at the time my mom became incapacitated, and that I was able to be there for her. On the other hand, being the primary caregiver for your elderly parent is perhaps a thankless job. The one person who notices it most, of course, is the person doing it. The people not doing it see it as no big deal. It’s just what you do. Life goes on. Whatever issues they were dealing with before, they’re still dealing with now, including career or relationship issues, marriages, divorces, childbirth, educational goals. Whatever. Life happens. Anyone can be a critic, and many people excel at the skill of driving from the back seat, with dubious results.
Proverbs 16:18 says it the best, “Pride goeth before destruction; and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Was I unnecessarily prideful or haughty? I don’t think so, but I was proud of my adult accomplishments, and I think rightfully so. I accomplished a debt-free existence and full retirement 6 years early, and in less than half the time of some other people I know, all while also raising two daughters as a single mother, earning two degrees, and building a successful career. That’s not nothing. But now I’ll start over and do it again at this later stage of life.
Could I have done it better? Undoubtedly. I would recommend for ANYONE to build and maintain their emergency fund savings account. This should, at the minimum, be equal to 6 months of expenses. Don’t get over excited and pat yourself on the back too soon.
But also, treat yourself with the same kindness and respect you would offer to anyone else. You deserve it, because if you don’t treat yourself with loving kindness, no one else can do it.