After years of caring for her increasingly difficult mother, Terry Baraldi reached a common conclusion: She does not want to put her kids through the same ordeal when she gets old.
As insurance, she did an unusual and creative thing. She wrote a letter to her future self and handed copies to her son and daughter."I love and trust in your love for me," she wrote in her introduction. "When and if the time comes, (you'll know before I do), please have the courage to give this letter back to me."
Baraldi was one of many people who commented online or emailed me after they read my article about family conflict over how long aging parents can safely live independently in their homes. I read several readers' heartfelt stories, including Baraldi's, while I was in Arizona helping my own 87-year-old mother adjust to a new assisted-living home in a new state.
Most of the commenters, like Baraldi, were from the younger generation. They wrote about both the stresses and rewards of being a caregiver. "For anyone who is going through this," one woman wrote, "just know, when everything is said and done, you will have no regrets. I miss my mom. I miss our conversations. I miss her advice and I miss my childhood home."
Several said their parents eventually moved to a senior facility and thrived there. Some said the opposite.
More than one pointed out that all the caregivers in my stories were daughters. Where are the men? they asked, usually with the implication that sons don't pull their weight. All I can say is that it was very hard to find families willing to talk openly about this emotionally charged topic. I made no attempt to find a representative sample.
In my own family, my brother is the primary caregiver for our mother. I hope that some day my sons will be as good to me as he is to our mother. I know he's not alone.
It was Baraldi's email, though, that most resonated with me. I'm pretty familiar with end-of-life issues. I've made out the living will. I took the extra step of writing my sons and brother a letter outlining my philosophical rationale for medical decision-making if I can't think for myself.
But, like Baraldi, there are things I'd like to do differently than my mother has, and I worry that dementia or some other aspect of aging will make me forget how much I want now to age gracefully, with an open heart, a sense of wonder, and a willingness to accept help when I need it. I loved her idea, even if I wonder whether my future self would listen to the younger me any more than she will listen to my sons or doctors. I think she might.
Baraldi said her mother was funny and smart when she was younger. She was a voracious reader and a "great mom" to eight children. But she had trouble navigating after her husband died in 1997. "She became very bitter," Baraldi said. "She became very fearful and more stubborn." She had dementia, and she wouldn't accept help. The kids squabbled over what to do. Baraldi, who lived nearby in Lansdowne, was the lead caregiver.
Ultimately, Baraldi, who is now 69, had to put her mother in a nursing home even though she had promised not to. She cried after every visit. She wrote the letter in 2004. Her mother died in 2008 at the age of 89.
Baraldi told her kids, now 41 and 45, that they might need the letter at times that are notoriously difficult - when she should stop driving, move out of her house, or accept their help.
Baraldi rereads the letter periodically and, so far, wouldn't change a word. Neither would I.
Here it is:
"Hello, old girl . . . for if you're reading this, that's what you are . . . and if Tommy or Nikki, or both, screwed up the courage to hand you this letter, then you had better read it. . . . You wrote it yourself, and you meant every word. This is your contract with them, and I expect you to honor it.
"Back in 2004, you promised that you would not put your kids thru the bitter ending that your own mother was dishing up . . . the stress and the grief . . . do you remember? Do you remember how exhausting it was just to be with her? How helpless and resentful you felt? Your mother was still alive when you wrote this, but there was very little joy or satisfaction in that . . . only a sad waiting for release . . . yours, as much as hers. This was not what she would have willingly chosen for herself, and most certainly not what she would have wished for you; but she had surrendered her reason, and you and your brothers and sisters had to deal with what was left. It split and divided you then, perhaps irrevocably.
"Don't you dare leave the same legacy!
"Your children love you. Trust them. Even if you don't want to believe them right now.
"You will listen to what they have to ask of you before it is too late to be part of the conversation, and while you still have some measure of control over your own life and well-being.
"You probably need to see a doctor for an evaluation of your physical and mental health. . . . GO!
"You may need to consider moving. It's unreasonable and selfish to expect anyone to try to keep up your home as well as theirs. Nor should they have to worry (as you did) about your health and safety. There are lots of choices between here and a nursing home.
"Don't wait until the decision is out of your hands.
"If you're still driving, it may be time to hand over the keys. This may be the hardest of all, but not as painful as killing yourself or someone else.
"You've had plenty of time to come to a better understanding of what your mother was feeling, and maybe you are now the one railing against the dying of the light, and the cold realities of aging. And you're probably as mad and as frightened about it as she ever was. Your mother was right about one thing . . . getting old is not for sissies.
"But here you are. Make peace with it. Make the most of it. Make this time count.
"Ask for the help that you need, and be grateful and gracious for the help that is offered.
"Be a friend and teacher to your grandchildren. They need you.
"If you are able, volunteer at something . . . somebody out there is worse off than you.
"Concentrate on the gifts that you still have to give: love, comfort, wisdom; and to receive: love in return, companionship, laughter . . . in short, life.
"That will be the best gift that you can leave your children."