Caregiving comes in many forms. It’s the day-to-day care of a loved one that lasts for months or years. It’s the care of a child with disabilities, and the search for supports that offer the most fulfilling and independent life possible. In George’s case, caregiving is an endless marathon with abrupt stops and starts that have put his own life on hold many times along the way.
Raised by a single mother, eviction, homelessness, and instability were everyday realities for George, but his mom Kathy did her best to provide for him. “She always made sure I had what I needed,” George recalls. “She always made my birthday and Christmas special.”
When George finished high school, his mom had a good job and an apartment. It seemed like their struggles were in the past. After college he moved back home to Philadelphia, worked, and started graduate school to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. These few years of hopeful progress turned out to be the calm before an even bigger storm.
After safety issues forced them out of their apartment, George and Kathy lived in a hotel for months, barely scraping together the weekly payments. Their savings were depleted, and George had to max out his credit cards to keep a roof over their heads. After his mom was settled into a new apartment, George moved to Pittsburgh for a job opportunity. He breathed a sigh of relief, again believing the struggle was over.
The Hardest Miles
On a visit back home, George noticed Kathy was walking funny, and he found it difficult to reason with her. He returned to Pittsburgh and heard through family that Kathy’s behavioral issues worsened, and although George sent her money, she continued to struggle with housing. It was a long-distance balancing act as he held down a demanding job, worked toward his LPC license, and tried to support his mom.
When she was threatened with yet another eviction, George tried a new resource for Kathy who had been in the Army before he was born. The Veterans Affairs office in Philadelphia was able to place her within their system, but his mom’s behavior continued to worsen until the VA sent her to Pittsburgh to stay with him.
The VA in Pittsburgh found Kathy’s walking had gotten worse. After ruling out a stroke and encephalitis, she was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia that impacts reasoning and impulsivity. The condition also attacked the part of her brain responsible for walking. “The symptoms added up, but I didn’t want to believe she had dementia. She wasn’t even 60 years old.”
The chaotic cycle continued despite George’s best efforts. His mom bounced from his apartment to her own, back to his place, to the VA, another nursing facility, and finally ending up back on her own. George had trouble keeping up with her ever-changing needs while trying to meet his own.
One day in 2019 the walls George had built to protect himself from the turmoil of caring for his mother crumbled. Unable to reach her by phone, he drove to her apartment and let himself in. “The first thing I saw was feet,” George remembers. “I thought she was dead.” Kathy was on the floor and unresponsive. It was at that point that George realized his mom couldn’t be on her own any more, and that he needed help too.
Finding Help to the Finish Line
“When my boss saw how shaken I was, she suggested I call our Employee Assistance Program and they connected me with Hope Grows.” George began working with a Caregiving Counselor and learned to use breathing exercises to calm his mind at the end of the day and write in a journal to release emotions. George’s Caregiving Counselor also helped changed his perspective of himself. “She said that I’m a survivor. I never saw myself as a survivor. I thought of myself as a struggler. I knew I survived it, but all I saw was the negative, the struggle.”
George’s mom now lives within the VA system, and he is working to obtain guardianship to make decisions and help with her finances, apply for Social Security, and make sure she is safe and happy.
As George reflects on the years when he and his mother were homeless and had nothing in the world but each other, he is grateful to have the chance to do for her what she did for him. “It takes a special person to be a caregiver,” George says. “God handpicked you to take care of this person for as long as they are here on earth.”