Sponsored By AARP

By Sheila O’Brien Schimpf

What surprised Diane Vondrak Bright about caring for her parents was the difference between her expectations and what actually happened.

“You become more accepting of the idea you can’t do everything,” said Bright, 61, of Troy. “Ideally, they would have been in their own home or mine. That just didn’t happen.”

Bright is an occupational therapist who designs accessible homes that help people stay there as long as they can. She also serves on the AARP Michigan Executive Council. Plus, her idea was that in families, people take care of each other at home. But for her parents, both in their 80s, their house became a giant negative. “The house was beating them—the maintenance, two floods.”

Bright also underestimated the amount of serious medical care they would need.

“It changed my entire perspective about living and dying at home,” she said. “You need more hands than just a family can offer. At least, we did.”

When her parents moved into her house last year, she took over navigating the medical system, and her sister, Deborah Bacal, a lawyer, worked through the legal side of things. Bright’s husband, George Vondrak, also helped share the load.

But her mother’s cancer progressed quickly and was complicated by a bacterial infection that required specialized nursing care. She died a few months later. This past August, her father entered a long-term care facility near Detroit with several serious conditions. He died in September.

The facility’s costs, covered by insurance at first, later rose to $8,000 a month, which the family is paying off by selling their parents’ house in Warren. “This is a generation that didn’t expect to live this long,” Bright noted.

Respite in friends
Bright and her family were among 1.3 million Michigan residents who each year provide more than 1.2 billion hours in unpaid care for relatives and friends, according to an AARP Public Policy Institute study. It valued this care at $14.5 billion.

When Bright’s parents lived in her house, she found respite in friends and relatives. “What I ended up doing was to rally around the people who say, ‘What can I do?’ ” she said.

Bright had friends who would stay overnight. She asked others to bring a meal she could microwave or do some grocery shopping.

She hired someone she found through networking who would play cards with her parents, help them into the bathroom and make lunch while she was at work.

She used APlaceforMom.com, a free service that helps caregivers research and find resources, and her local Area Agency on Aging, part of a nationwide network of nonprofits with 16 regional locations in Michigan.

Lisa Whitmore Davis, AARP Michigan associate state director for multicultural outreach and community engagement, recommends the Area Agencies on Aging Association of Michigan website (mi-seniors.net) and two others offered by AARP:

Davis offered a six-session workshop for caregivers this summer. “It was very successful,” she said. “You could see there is a longing for interaction and connection with people in the same journey.” Check aarp.org/mi for future workshops and updates on AARP’s work in the state capital to support caregivers.

Davis recommends that Michigan caregivers who need advice check:

  • Michigan.gov/aging under Help at Home.
  • The Aging & Adult Services Agency and Michigan Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program (under Special Programs) at michigan.gov/osa or 866-485-9393 toll-free.

Bright’s advice to caregivers is to find something that can turn any day into a good day. She and her husband have “Macaulay Days,” named after her 2½-year-old grandson, who now has a sister, Riley, born in August.

They help her feel the circle of life—Riley was born in the same hospital where her mother died—and Macaulay just says the funniest things, Bright said.

“On Macaulay Days, we laugh all day.”
Sheila O’Brien Schimpf is a writer living in East Lansing, Mich

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