Heartlight Special Feature

The following is an excerpt from Anita Johnson's upcoming book dealing with aging parents. We hope you find this insight, from one who has dealt with this issue first hand, helpful.


Patch, Patch, by Anita Johnson

A simple man believes anything,
but a prudent man gives thought to his steps.
—Proverbs 14:15

     As a CAREGIVER, it is important to look at the problems facing your parent one item at a time. Our tendency is to try to fill a big gaping hole of need by doing  “too much, too soon." This rarely meets the true needs of the parent. This is a little like throwing away a good garment only because it needs a little mending. Why through away something perfectly good when it all it needs is a patch or two?

     Immediately following the death of a loved one is a terrible time to make major, lasting changes in the life of a parent. When a parent loses a lifetime companion, this parent must work through the disorienting aspects of grief. Just because the loved one is old or has been sick an extended period of time does not exempt our parent from the overwhelming sense of loss. If anything, a lifetime partner is even more dazed from this loss than others. This is so easy to forget, especially when we are grieving the same death but in different ways.

     Let me illustrate with the Johansen family story.

     The Johansen family made a mistake of acting too quickly and too decisively. This grief stricken family was eager to rescue a beloved mother from what looked like a big problem which called for big solutions. Their Mother Johansen was suddenly left alone when Father J died. The only saw a joyless, lonely existence ahead for their beloved mother. They pictured her burdened by her big house, unnecessarily facing hard, cold winters alone.

     This stark image helped their protective imaginations to see Mother Johansen slipping and falling on an icy sidewalk and breaking a hip. They could even imagine worse outcomes: she could fall in the tub and lie injured for days before she was discovered. Every CAREGIVER knows this fear well.

     Grief-stricken, burdened, lonely, vulnerable, remote... This was the mental image Mother Johansen’s children had of her. It was a picture which broke their hearts. So they decided to fix it.

     The shocked and grieving family had rushed to Mother Johansen’s side. After the funeral, the children and her youngest sister, Sue, had a conference regarding how best to care for her. She was now in her mid eighties. They decided she shouldn’t stay in her big house in her small town in Arkansas, especially since her four children lived at the four corners of the United States.

     You see, Mother Johansen lived far from any major airports. Visits to her were difficult. Her daughter-in-law, Jean, told me that they had to fly from California to Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport, then take a feeder flight to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Of course the feeder flight was always on the far side of the airport in a different terminal and connections were tricky at best. As Jean put it,  “When we arrived in Fayetteville, we had two transportation choices: mule train or pack horses to go into the remote wiles of the Ozarks!"

     So Sister Sue suggested that Mother Johansen come live with her in Florida. Since Sue’s other sister Mary lived nearby, this seemed like a great idea. The family wanted Mother Johansen out of her big old house, in milder winters, near family, not living alone. The advantages seemed clear. Unfortunately those advantages blinded the loving family to the things Mother Johansen would lose by a move.

     While their mom was still numb from losing her husband, the house was put on the market. All but a few personal possessions were placed with an estate sale agency. Mother Johansen was packed off to live with Sister Sue.

     As mom came out of her 'fog' a few months later, she realized she had no friends, no home, and no life. At least not life as she had known it. Sue and Mother Johansen got along fine, but shy Mother Johansen hasn’t made any friends in the ten years they have lived together. Sue, long established in the community, has her own circle of friends and her own activities. Sue is willing to include Mother Johansen in her activities, but she doesn’t play bridge or golf, Sue’s favorite activities. Naturally, Mother Johansen doesn’t want to tag along with her sister and constantly feel out of place.

     Having Mother Johansen look after the house and pets while she is away is ideal for Sue who travels a great deal. Mother Johansen doesn’t drive and there are no stores within walking distance. This leaves mom home alone in a neighborhood where she knows no one and feels isolated and afraid. This is exactly the situation Jean and the other children were trying to protect their mom from. Now their solution has only added to her isolation.

     Mother Johansen’s other sister, Mary, is generous with her help, but everything mom needs -- trips to the store, church, beauty shop, and doctors -- takes up a lot of time. Mary has her own family and life, so by the time she does the necessary things for mom, there is no time to do fun things together.

     A loving family with the best of intentions made the wrong decision for their mother because they made their decision too quickly. They could not see all that Mother Johansen would have to give up with her move.

     Mother Johansen lost her big house. Sure it was a lot of work, but it was full of her things, and even more importantly, her memories. Additionally, that big house was in a small town where Mother Johansen knew everyone. She could walk to the store and beauty shop. Long time friends were happy to pick her up for church and take her to the 'authorized' restaurant where most of the older members ate Sunday dinner. It is true the winters brought snow and ice storms, but with a little planning, mom could  “hole up ” during the worst of the storms and the local grocery store would deliver to the senior citizens who were regular customers. This was the life she knew and it was lost to her.

     The very real concerns of her children needed to be considered, but they did too much, too soon. While there are many solutions, or partial solutions to problems like Mother Johansen’s, the key is to take your time and act prayerfully after your parent has had time to come out from under the darkest part of grief’s shadow.

     When a parent loses a loved one, the most immediate problem is the loss they have sustained. Naturally the family doesn’t want to return to their homes and leave that bereaved parent alone to wrestle with grief. They want to make sure there is some kind of support system in place for their grieving loved one. But a loving CAREGIVER will want to ASK his or her bereaved parent what he or she wants. Mother Johansen was in no position to decide on long range plans on the day of her husbands funeral, but she did have some feelings about where she wanted to be. It is important to ask.

     But even if she did not have any answers or preferences, there were some things the family could have done differently. Whatever their early course of action, they needed to make a temporary plan. I can’t stress temporary enough. The more flexibility you can maintain to any change in a parent’s life, the easier it will be to correct mistakes which will inevitably be made. As these early temporary decisions are made, several key issues need to be considered.


     What options are open to someone like Mother Johansen? (1) She could go for a visit to Sister Sue’s. (2) She could visit one of her children. But my guess is that if she had been asked, Mother Johansen would have chosen to stay in her own home. There is something about losing a loved one, especially a spouse, which makes one want to be in her own home around familiar things.

     The  “stay at home” option might look like this. (Remember we are talking about temporary solutions.) Sue, or one of the children, might be able to remain for a few weeks. One of the adult grandchildren might be able to stay for a while. There may be a close friend or family member in the community who could stay for a few days, if Mother Johansen agreed. At the very least, the family might find someone who would agree to come on a daily basis for an agreed period of time. Mother Johansen’s Ladies Bible Class might rotate visits. They would want to keep in mind, however, the importance of continuing their visits for several weeks after the numbness of grief begins to wear off.

     Whatever solutions are found, nothing permanent should be attempted until Mother Johansen begins to feel like herself again and can help with the decision making.


     But what about that big house problem? Jean told me that since Mother Johansen was in her mid-eighties when Father J died, the family felt sure she was getting too old to care for such a large house. But then years later, Mother Johansen is still physically very B and active. While it is true she no longer has Father J to put up storm windows and do things around the yard, people can be hired to do those things. Rooms can be shut off so they are not heated or cleaned. Later, when she is feeling better, the big house may be an advantage. She may find a friend or acceptable person to share the house with her, helping both with her expenses, repairs, and loneliness.          


     There is no way for a woman who has just lost her husband to avoid periods of loneliness. Father J’s death left a hole in her life which she can never fill. This doesn’t mean, however, that she will never enjoy her life again. If Mother Johansen had been permitted to remain in her home town, she would have had her old friends from her church and community to provide companionship. She would have been less lonely in her home town than in her new one where she knew no one. Band aid solutions to loneliness usually prolong or deepen it, rather than relieve it.


     Every CAREGIVER is concerned for the safety of a parent left alone. Surveillance can be the answer to this concern. Surveillance in the form of regular visits and phone calls from friends or regular communication and visits from local family members help. Even most small towns have  “life lines” or monitors which an elderly person can wear in case they  “fall and can’t get up.” With four children, even at the four corners of the United States, Mother Johansen should receive four phone calls a week, each on a different day.
     Additionally, Mother Johansen’s children should counsel her regarding people who prey on elderly people, feeding their fears in order to extort money from them. This should be done in a very tactful way to avoid the implication of ignorance or gullibility. Vulnerability must be weighed against autonomy and security when life altering decisions have to be made.


     Mother Johansen’s small town in Arkansas was remote by air. Her children found it difficult to visit. Either a long automobile trip or a costly and cumbersome combo air trip and rent-a-car was the only way of visiting. Having a parent living in a remote situation is a valid concern. Mother Johansen’s children knew that she would enjoy and benefit from frequent visits from her children and they added that to their reasons for moving her. But like any other change to her life, that had to be weighed against what she lost in the move. CAREGIVERS must weigh the accessibility to a parent with the need for them to be around friends, familiar surroundings, and predictable circumstances.

     Keep in mind that most circumstances are temporary. In fact, Mother Johansen’s son in California took a job in Wichita, Kansas, within a year of his father’s death. This unforeseeable move placed him within a few hours drive of Mother Johansen’s home town. Unfortunately she had been relocated to Florida when he arrived.

     Usually when children move a parent because they are far away, it is for the children’s convenience. I don’t mean to sound cruel by that statement. Of course the child wants the parent nearer so that they can see the parent more, and do more for the parent. But the losses for the parent often outweigh the benefits. As CAREGIVERS and children, we must be scrupulously honest with ourselves and our motives.          


     Let’s finish with a few keys to making good decisions and avoiding painful mistakes as a CAREGIVER:

  • Find out what the parent wants to do.
  • Identify the problems one by one.
  • Try to find solutions to the problems while respecting the parents wishes to live where they choose.
  • Keep any changes as open ended as possible.
  • Be honest with ourselves and our motives.

It would be nice to have one simple, universal plan for our parents when they are left alone through the death of a spouse. Life is too complex and dynamic for that to be possible. Our challenge is to be loving, without being hasty in our plans to help. Usually this means remaining open and adaptable to new options. If it has to be reduced to one phrase, I think it would have to be,  “Patch, patch, patch!” that good old garment, rather than throwing it away and buying a new one.


Out of respect for the family, we have changed their name even though they have given permission for their story to be used. The Editors

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