The Challenges of the Topsy-Turvey World of Mental Illness

What happens when children become the legal guardian for a parent?
In celebration of National Family Caregivers Month, we’re sharing the stories of other bloggers and caregivers. Today guest blogger Tara Ulrich writes about the topsy-turvey world of mental illness when young adults have to become the caregiver for a parent.

Children should not have to care for their parents when they are young. In the natural order of life, parents care for their children and then when parents age, children care for their parents. Yet sometimes that order is thrown off balance such as in our case. My sister and I have been our mother’s legal guardians since approximately the fall of 2003. Our Mom had a nervous breakdown shortly after my sister was born so we have not known different. Mental illness continues to be a part of our story.

In 2001, Mom’s lithium level got too high which caused her kidneys to shut down. We weren’t sure she was going to make it. She spent days in the intensive care unit of a local hospital. She eventually pulled through, but the illness aged her a lot. Since that time, Mom has been living in a nursing home.

Prior to the fall of 2003 (fall of 2002), I began a new adventure. I moved hours and miles away from home to attend Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. It was the first time I was not within driving distance of being able to visit Mom at a moment’s notice. It was an important time for me to gain some freedom and independence, but it also was a time I questioned if Mom would always have the best care provided for her.

I remember vividly that September day in 2003 when several of my friends and I were sitting on a blanket, sprawled out on the grass, in the courtyard of Wartburg Seminary sharing about our summer experiences. I was sharing with them about my mom, her/our journey with a mental illness, the death of her dad (our Grandpa) that past August and her aging mother who was beginning to show early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Since our parent’s divorce, Mom’s parents had kept a pulse on Mom’s medical needs, but now we were at a crossroads. My sister and I knew that we needed to make a decision. That afternoon, several of my friends shared with me their thoughts on the situation as many of them had just completed clinical pastoral education (CPE). In addition, we made a list of the pros and cons of my sister and me becoming Mom’s legal guardians. After much discussion and tons of prayer, it became very apparent to my sister and I that we needed to make the decision to become Mom’s legal guardians.

It has been a role that neither my sister or I particularly wanted, but it is a role that we both feel we have been called to. And it is a role that, at times, I particularly have been glad that we have held. While at other times, it is a role that I haven’t wanted. This summer, Mom again had some health issues that reared their ugly head. I was traveling for work, continuing education and vacation which often put me out of the area and even out of state. And as the youngest, my sister doesn’t always feel the most comfortable making the decisions in regards to Mom and her health. But since we are both her legal caregivers, we were able to make calls in regards to Mom’s care this summer remotely.

Legal guardianship allowed us to make decisions for my mom when her health prevented her from making them on her own. Click To Tweet

Being Mom’s caregiver is not an easy job. In fact, there are times that I find myself continually asking for forgiveness: Did we make the right decision? And when I try to answer that question, I find myself heaping on the guilt. Yet over time, my sister and I have grown to understand the importance of making this decision for mom and her health.
In so many ways, my sister and I have grown as we have learned what it means to be Mom’s caregivers and to continue to make the best choices for her.

Growing up, when Mom was healthy, she was the best mom in the world and cared for us with her entire being. In return, we want to do the best we can to care for her too. So we do our best to trust the nurses at the nursing home to care for her when we are not there. We also do our best to care for ourselves so we can make the best decisions for Mom and her health. It is a role that God has called my sister and me to until God calls Mom to be with Jesus and her own parents one day.

And until that day, we will continue to do our best to be the best caregivers we can be!

Tara UlrichTara Ulrich lives in Minot, ND where she serves at a Lutheran church as the Director of Home and Family Ministry. She is a rostered Diaconal Minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (Diaconal Ministers grew out of the Catholic understanding of deacons and deaconesses; Word and Service rather than Word and Sacrament). Prior to coming to Minot, she lived in Moorhead, MN and served at a church in Dilworth, MN for approximately 6 1/2 years. She is a graduate of the University of Mary (Bismarck, ND) and Wartburg Theological Seminary. She loves to spend time with her friends and family, reading, writing, and on the beautiful prairies of North Dakota. You can follow her at her blog Praying on the Prairie.

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a ‘recovering cancer caregiver’ who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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  • Donne

    Thank you so much, Tara, for giving us yet another perspective on caring for people with mental illness. It is especially difficult in your case (and your sister’s) because you are having to ‘parent’ your parent. That is an unenviable position at best to take on so young, especially when exacerbated by the mental illness.
    Prayers and big virtual hugs to you and your sister as you serve your mother.

    • Donne, thank you so much for the prayers and big virtual hugs. They are much appreciated.
      Tara recently posted…Hold Us In LoveMy Profile

  • What a gift you both are to her… and to each other! Praying for all of you! Of course, you know I love the self-care comment as much as I love the fact that you honor and serve your Mom in a way that is trying, I am sure – but also so full of love! I can just see our good, good Father nodding in agreement as Jesus beams proudly at how you walk through this calling, my friend! Well done, good and faithful servant rings in my ears and heart!
    ~Karrilee~ recently posted…Every Little (Everlasting Shiny) Thing – A Dayspring Giveaway!My Profile

    • Aww thanks friend! I do hope to hear those words “Well done good and faithful servant”
      Tara recently posted…Hold Us In LoveMy Profile

  • Oh, the ups and downs of caregiving. You expressed it well. Blessings as you continue the journey.
    Karen Sebastian recently posted…Gratitude Series #12: I Am Thankful for GPS – Guiding Prayer SupportMy Profile

  • I admire you and all you are doing! Thank you for sharing your story with us.
    Sara @ The Holy Mess recently posted…What I Wish You Could See About My “Bad” KidsMy Profile

    • Thank You, Sara! I have learned the power of sharing my story and hope that someone else is blessed by it.
      Tara recently posted…Hold Us In LoveMy Profile

  • That’s challenging in middle age to be responsible for the care of one’s parents – it would be so much more so at the age you and your sister were and are. We’ve second-guessed some of our decisions with my m-i-l, too, but all we can all do is he best we know how under God’s guidance day by day.
    Barbara H. recently posted…From Depletion to AbundanceMy Profile

    • Barbara, thank you for the reminder that all we can do is the best we know how too under God’s guidance day in and day out.
      Tara recently posted…Hold Us In LoveMy Profile

  • Your story is not the norm, Tara but one that is more frequent than we know. You are brave and strong but we know that it is through God we are able to keep going through day after day. You make a great point that we need to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others. Praying with you as you learn daily how to be your mom’s guardian. Hugs!
    Mary Geisen recently posted…Sitting in the SilenceMy Profile

    • Mary, thank you for saying that I am brave and strong. I’ll admit that I don’t always feel that way. And yes it is indeed God that gets us through each day. Thanks for the prayers. They are what sustain us! 🙂
      Tara recently posted…Hold Us In LoveMy Profile

  • This was a good write, Tara. Much insight to people who are being caregivers or making those caregiving decisions for their parents. My sister and I also had to go through this with our mother. One of the hardest things I ever had to do was put her in a nursing home. Even though I knew it was best for her, it caused me great guilt. When she became hospitalized due to breathing issues, we once again had to make very heart wrenching decisions which eventually led to her death. She did not want to be kept alive by machines but could no longer breathe on her own. We sat with her and watched for days while she struggled to breathe and then finally took her last breaths. Incredibly hard but possible with God’s strength. May He continue to give you strength as you deal with the many decisions regarding the best care for your mother.
    Judy recently posted…The Idea Versus The PracticeMy Profile

    • Thank You, Judy! You indeed understand where I am coming from with a lot of this. Blessings to you as well.
      Tara recently posted…Hold Us In LoveMy Profile

  • Beautiful story, Tara. Your mom is blessed to have you two looking after her. ????
    Dianne Thornton recently posted…WITH The Lord, Is Unfailing Love And Full RedemptionMy Profile

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