Mental illness impacts a family

Life got a lot busier for me in 2021. After being unemployed for 15 months, I started a new “career” in January at the young age of 64.5. At the same time, I began regularly helping out my 71-year-old, unmarried sister, Sue.

We all have our personality quirks, but my sister Sue had some particularly unusual ones. Sue is an ardent animal lover and purposely attracted wild critters (squirrels, chipmunks, rats) into her modest house (photo above) by leaving a trail of nuts to her open back door and into her kitchen. It’s obvious that that behavior wasn’t so much a personality quirk as a mental health problem and a precursor of things to come.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I began to notice that Sue was also starting to have memory issues. Most noticeably, she would get lost driving to or from our house. Medical tests revealed she had onset dementia. Sue kept driving until she had a fender-bender in January and her doctor barred her from the road. I then became her official chauffeur, taking her to medical appointments and grocery shopping.

Along with the dementia, Sue was a hoarder. The conditions inside her house were halfway to the horrors you see on the “Hoarders” cable TV show. The harsh odor (mainly a combination of cat urine ammonia, cat feces, and rotting cat food) that permeated her house was staggering. The hoarding and unclean conditions didn’t happen overnight. We noticed Sue started to become careless about her housekeeping habits ten to twelve years ago. It gradually reached a point where her neighbor friends would no longer venture inside her house because of the mess and the smell. Sue was incredulous when she was told about the nauseating stench. She freely admitted her house was “a little messy,” but was totally oblivious to the overpowering odor.

Given the progression of her dementia and her living conditions, the family needed to intervene. I have three other sisters who live in a house together in Florida. A plan gradually evolved for Sue to move into a senior living facility in the same Florida city. She would start out in an independent living unit (she’s already far past that capability in my opinion), but will transition to assisted living and then to memory care as the dementia progresses. Sue strongly resisted the plan at first, but gradually and reluctantly conceded that she was no longer able to continue living in her home.

The departure day was swiftly approaching and one of the other sisters flew up to Rochester to help Sue pack. On the day of their flight to Florida, we scrambled to catch one of Sue’s two cats and put it in a carrier. In the frenzy, I discovered another large, dead cat under the bed where Sue slept every night. After it inflicted some scratches and bites*, we caught the frightened, fugitive kitty and they all got on the plane to Florida.

Since then, I’ve been working with a realtor to get Sue’s house ready for sale. The realtor utilizes a crew of college students to clear out houses and over the course of two weeks they filled four large roll-off dumpsters with Sue’s furnishings and belongings. Extensive work will be needed on the interior; getting it cleaned, painted, and fixed-up before putting it on the market. Most of that work will be hired out. I’ve been very busy working on Sue’s finances and getting them in order. She had reached a point where she was not writing checks for critical monthly bills. Sue has Social Security, a modest pension, and had managed to squirrel away a decent amount to an IRA account, but the monthly bill for an apartment in the memory care unit will be very expensive and the funds will flow out quickly. The additional responsibilities of helping Sue have been a strain and a source of tension in our marriage. I’m just being honest. My three sisters in Florida (one in particular) have picked up even bigger responsibilities by overseeing Sue’s care from here on out.

Most everyone has a tale to tell about someone in their extended network of family and friends who is dealing with some type of mental challenge. I’m glad mental health is becoming more “out in the open” and freely discussed. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s many years before she died in 2014. My doting father ascribed it to “just a little forgetfulness” until the disease was full-blown and could no longer be denied. I have a fifth, married sister, who still resides here in Rochester who is only 66, but is already severely limited by Alzheimer’s.

I discussed the Gospel with Sue over the years, but she was not receptive. She was a school teacher for forty years and taught exclusively at Catholic grammar schools, but doesn’t believe in God. She thinks the Bible is “fairy tales,” but, of course, she never read it.

*After she arrived in Florida, Sue spent several days in a hospital due to a severe infection caused by the cat scratches and bites on her arm and hand.

30 thoughts on “Mental illness impacts a family

    1. Thanks, Mandy. It was helpful to put thoughts to (virtual) paper. The same sister who cared for our mother will be overseeing Sue’s care. She is not relishing going through it again. Even though Sue is living in a facility as opposed to her home, as my parents did, she will be intimately involved, now and as the dementia progresses. All three sisters in Florida were already struggling with health issues. Every family has its challenges.

      Thanks for your prayers! Love and prayers to you and Nathan.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. God bless you and your wife, Tom, for all you have done. I know these things can strain a marriage.

    Regarding your sister, I hope somewhere inside her head there is still enough understanding to come to saving faith. My the Lord be with your other sisters as they take care of her.

    And may God bless your younger sister who is already showing signs of decline. May they all come to salvation in the Lord Jesus.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, David! I appreciate your prayers. Living in this fallen world presents many, many challenges, but salvation in Jesus Christ is the most important need.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Tom, I know first hand how challenging these situations can be and you are right, every family has its challenges and if you are like me, I am reminded almost on a daily basis how poorly equipped I am to deal with all of the implications that arise. Some days it seems that all I can do is just barely keep my head above water. Thank God for His mercy, forgiveness and grace. I lifted you and yours up in prayer this morning Tom. Blessings brother.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers, Bruce. Yes, there have been some really challenging days and all I could do was cry out to the Lord. With my sister now down in Florida, my “tasks” are now “administrative” and will dwindle after the house is sold, but the lives of long-term caregivers are totally changed and the challenges are daily.

      I pray for you that the Lord will assist you with all that you need to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so sorry Tom. I work for an Adult Day Service Center. Our goal is to help people remain as independent as possible for as long as possible. All forms of dementia are awful. We’ve seen a huge decline in our participants during and following the long months of isolation in 2020. I’ve been away from the blog for about as long as the Pandemic…haven’t been reading or writing for over a year. For some reason, I opened it up today. I believe the Lord wanted me to share with you. The struggle of caregiving is hard. Period. But I also know the pain of trying to share the Gospel and having it not be received with joy. God knows our deep, deep sorrow. Our prayers are doing more good than we will know this side of heaven. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. And God knows…He gave us these Catholic/Agnostic/Atheist (you name it) family members. He ordained where we would be…He chose us and because we know the truth, we are made righteous by the blood of Christ. We must never cease to pray for them…and know that in all things…God is good.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good to hear from you, Jackie, and thank you! Yes, it’s been a long time, but God guides circumstances providentially as you mention.

      Lord bless you and your work. Our sister could have used some professional assistance ten years ago, but everyone is in denial and “life goes on.”

      Yes, we don’t understand the power of prayer and the mention of the Lord and the Gospel now and then. My sisters would rather put their faith in History Channel “documentaries” critical of the Bible, than read it. But personal crises and facing mortality can cause a person to ponder their spiritual condition. Thank you for the encouragement, Jackie!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I was nine years old financial stress caused my mom to have to have a “breakdown”. We all, my mother, father and I went to live with my uncle (her brother) for about a month while she went for “treatment” near his house. I was out of school for that month. I was in fourth grade at the time. Thankfully we returned home and she recovered. And I thank the Lord that in her latter years she was born again. My dad had dementia in the latter years of his life. It’s so sad to see your loved ones suffer. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing, Cathy. These kinds of mental health issues are tough for adults let alone for children. My mother had a serious fall and head injury when I was a young child and had bouts of depression and other mental health issues afterwards. It was all hushed up back in those days and learned only some of the details decades later.
      Yes, it’s sad to watch loved ones lose their cognitive abilities. My Mom didn’t know who I was the last year of her life.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow thank you for this post. For sharing all that you were involved with these last few weeks; not easy and man God bless you for showing love to your sister with helping her and your sisters out. Mental health of various stripes is a serious issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, brother! For some strange reason the idea popped into my head to summarize the situation with my sister over the last six months. I know many families are trying to help a loved one with mental health challenges. I’m glad mental health is being talked about these days. Everyone was in denial and/or cover-up in previous generations, like my father who wouldn’t acknowledge my mother had Alzheimer’s until the very end.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. RE: Similarly with troops in combat with talking about dealing with the craziness of war

        Good point. WWII vets were admired for their reticence regarding their war experiences. Keeping hard memories bottled-up was viewed as the manly thing to do.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you Tom for sharing this difficult trial. Mental health issues can be worse than physical disabilities; people can somehow blame the mentally ill but have compassion for the other.
    I know, ongoing, open ended family illness/dysfunction definitely strains the marriage. I try to remember that God has a purpose – perhaps uncomfortably conforming me to the image of His Son.
    Thank you again for sharing, I’m sure it resounds in othets’ hearts and leads us to pray for you and your wife.
    Press on brother.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lisa Beth, thank you for sharing your good thoughts and encouragement regarding this post. I “put it out there” because, yes, mental health is still widely viewed as a “shameful” taboo topic.

      Thank you for your prayers! One particular sister in Florida now has the bulk of the responsibility in caring for our sister with dementia, a role she did not anticipate and is not happy about (after being our mother’s caregiver for many years).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll be praying for your sister in FL, it’s so easy to feel things are unfair and kindle resentment. I pray she comes to know the Lord and sees Him alongside her. May the Lord answer your prayers and, through this hardship, reveal Himself to your family.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I know only too well of what you have shared Tom.
    Please know that I am praying for you, your wife and your sisters. May the Lord use this painful trial to bring your sister to saving faith .

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Gosh, Tom, I’m so sorry about everything but especially sorry Sue rejects God and thinks the Bible is a fairy tale… 💔😭…
    (((( ❤️))))
    You can be satisfied knowing you DID witness to her! 🙌🙏🏻

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Beth. Yes, compared to all of the other challenges in this temporal world, salvation in Christ is the greatest need. My sisters all went through 12 years of Catholic schooling, as I did, and ultimately rejected their legalistic religion (good), but in the process also rejected the Bible and the Gospel it declares (without ever having read it).

      Liked by 1 person

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