Nikkei Voice: When Family Caregiving Isn’t Enough for Your Parent

May 4, 2018 • Asakawa, Columnists

Gil Asakawa

By Gil Asakawa

My brother, Glenn, and I moved our mom from her house in Lafayette, Colo., last month to live in a memory care facility nearby. She’s had dementia for years, and it’s gotten noticeably worse for the past couple of years. I’m still sorting through how I felt to take her out of her house, and how it feels now.

Junko Asakawa was born and raised in Nemuro, a small fishing town in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. She grew up in the prewar years and was even crowned “Miss Nemuro” when she was a teenager. My dad met her during the Korean War, when he was stationed in Nemuro.

Junko Asakawa and her son Glenn in her new room. (Photo: Gil Asakawa)

My mom always cooked Japanese food, even when she made American-style dinners. I have vivid memories of eating steak, or hamburgers, or spaghetti — while she had salmon, miso soup and white rice.

When we moved from Japan to northern Virginia, she began baking and decorating cakes, and I was proud to help her by making templates for her of cartoon characters like Snoopy or Charlie Brown when customers requested them. And she began making mochi manju, the Japanese sweet bean-paste-filled sticky rice pastries, to sell in a D.C. Japanese grocery.

After we moved to Denver, she continued selling manju and making cakes. I found two albums of faded photographs of her cakes, catalogs that I’ll treasure.

My dad died of cancer 26 years ago. My mom lived in our big suburban house until almost a decade ago, when my younger brother, Glenn, suggested she should move across the street from he and his wife and their daughters’ house in Lafayette, a northern suburb east of Boulder. After her move, it seemed like she became a smaller person, not just in stature but in presence, and lonelier. Her Japanese friends were farther away.

She became, like a lot of older people, isolated. Mostly, in the last few years, she’s spent her time watching TV Japan, a satellite TV feed of Japanese programming that includes news, kids’ shows, game shows, dramas, music and variety shows all on one channel, all day long. We took away her car about five years ago when state police found her at a highway exit in Wyoming, a two-hour drive away. She thought she was going to Walmart, five minutes away.

Because Glenn and his wife, Michelle, lived across the street, they became my mom’s primary caregivers, maintaining the house and yard and making sure she was all right. They’d take her grocery shopping (in the end, they just bought the groceries she needed) or to the hair salon.

But we all knew that my mom’s dementia would make it harder and harder to care for her. By this January, Glenn and Michelle were going across the street every morning, noon and night, to feed her because she’d stopped cooking for herself.

It’s hard to face reality. Even though you might want to think you can keep caring for a loved one in his or her own home, or in your home, there will come a time when the burden of caregiving can feel like a crushing weight.

For Asians especially, there’s so much cultural value placed on respect for elders, and caring for elders, that Asians tend to have among the highest numbers of multigenerational households.

We finally realized it was time to let professionals care for mom full-time, 24/7. Glenn did an excellent job of contacting nearby senior centers and memory care facilities (specially created for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s), and we chose one that’s just a few minutes away from his house. Glenn and Michelle brought some things from her home to make her room look familiar, and we pay for TV Japan on her cable box.

To my surprise, in the weeks since we moved her, my mom seems to have accepted her new home, even though she get confused occasionally and asks when we’ll take her home. The staff at the center says my mom is very friendly (shock to all of us) and sits in the great room and socializes with other residents most of the time (another shock) or watches the English cable TV (shock) and spends very little time in her room watching Japanese TV (shock, shock, shock).

But it’s hard to shake the feeling of guilt that I’m not doing enough for my mom. And, there are ripple effects that continue to affect me.

We’ve been cleaning out my mom’s house so we can rent it out, and I felt as if as if my mom had died. But the optimist in me knows that we’re doing the right thing, and our mom will be well-cared for.

And she’s still normal and gets delighted when we bring her a Japanese snack like mochi manju or osembe crackers.

We’re looking forward to taking her to Japanese restaurants when she’s mentally settled in her new home. That should bring her some very nice memories.

Gil Asakawa is the P.C. Editorial Board chair and will be on a panel sponsored by AARP discussing family caregiving at the JACL National Convention in Philadelphia, July 18-22.

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