From Mom to Mama: My Experiences in Long Distance Caregiving


altshul headshotSara Altshul
AGS Staff Writer

My brother Jake and I aren’t especially close in anything except age – we’re just 18 months apart. We share few commonalities, except on matters of décor, fine food, and wine. But on one very important matter, we cooperated and came together in a way we never had before, or in fact, have since – taking care of our mother in her final years.

Beside our vastly different personalities and viewpoints, we had our challenges: it was just the two of us, we lived 150 miles apart, and we both had demanding, full-time jobs. And I was the single mother of two adolescent boys. But we managed. We adopted an oddly supportive and cooperative approach, splitting tasks in ways that worked for us. Together, when the time came that Mom could no longer manage alone, we moved her from Florida to live with Jake on eastern Long Island, and I drove from western New Jersey to help out on weekends. When Mom needed full-time care, we found a good nursing home a few miles from Jake’s house. He visited her daily, and the kids and I continued our weekend visits up until her death several months later.

When I remarried four years after Mom passed, I was delighted to discover that I’d gotten myself a magnificent mother-in-law. She was an energetic 82 when we married, a tiny truly Italian mama of seven whose accent was thick as polenta, despite her many decades living in this country. She cooked, she gardened, she babysat her grandchildren, she kept a keen eye on her Brooklyn neighbors, and she danced the Tarantella at our wedding. Sweeter and more nurturing than my own mother had been, we took to each other the moment we met, and even now, 15 years later, I feel like I got a second chance at being mothered.Sadly, these last 15 years have been awfully tough on Mama. In that time, she’s lost three of her children—two of them shockingly fast and way before their time. She’s also lost countless relatives of her own generation. And she battles heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and bad knees.

But at 96, she knows what’s in her bank account to the penny and still makes a mean ragu. Though frail, she’s still fiercely independent and has fought tooth and nail against having a fulltime caregiver in her Brooklyn apartment.

Up until a couple years ago, my husband and I lived upstairs in a tiny apartment in Mama’s four-apartment Bensonhurst building, and as a freelance writer, I could bounce in and out regularly. At the time, six of her seven children lived in the neighborhood, as did many adult grandchildren, so someone was always visiting, shopping for her, and making sure she had all she needed.

When a job called me to Pennsylvania, we moved, and now we’re a 90-minute drive away. As always, though we’re now fewer in number, taking care of Mama is still very much a shared family enterprise.

My magnificent late sister-in-law Margaret had the foresight to put all the pieces of Mama’s business perfectly in place. Mama’s building is now held in a family trust, as are her various bank accounts. The four remaining siblings share trusteeship, and in this tight-knit family, that works out perfectly. Mama has a living will and has set forth advance directives should she become incapacitated. We all know exactly what to do when that time comes. My brother-in-law Mario moved into the apartment we vacated, and brother-in-law Tony lives in the apartment next door to Mama.

Over Mama’s vociferous objections, Joy, a professional caregiver, comes in five days a week to prepare breakfast and lunch, do her laundry, and make sure she takes her meds. On nice days, Joy sets up two chairs on the stoop so Mama can watch the neighbors stroll by. In the evenings, either Mario or Tony will have dinner with Mama (which she often insists on cooking) and on weekends, there’s a rotating schedule so that one of her children is always home with her.

My life has absolutely been enriched because of these two very different mothers, and these two very different long-distance caregiving experiences. Caring for Mom cooperatively with my brother brought us closer, and now, we look forward to seeing each other at holidays. And being even a small part of the much bigger family I married into, happily dedicated to their Mama, has been a source of joy for me.