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Dave Olson, Published May 02 2010

One family’s choice to help their aging parents, themselves

More than 22 million households in the United States provide care to someone over the age of 50, according to numbers from AARP, a national organization that advocates for seniors and tracks aging trends.

Figuring out when home care is no longer possible, physically or emotionally, is difficult to determine.

Joan Fegert struggled for years before asking for help.

When she did, she found it, both for herself and her parents, who are in their 90s.

After getting past the reluctance to accept help and the normal human resistance to change, her parents moved to an assisted living community that provides them with meals, security and all the bingo they can handle.

They are happy, Joan says, adding that when it comes to making transitions late in life, planning is important. And sooner is better than later.


A new home for Mom & Dad

As poignant moments go, it was right up there with the first day of school.

Except Mildred Bjerke was 91. And she wasn’t the one doing the dropping off.

The car carrying Mildred and her husband, Clifford, pulled to a stop outside the Golden Living Community in Moorhead, where nurses were waiting with a wheelchair.

Clifford got out and walked away; he couldn’t watch.

Joan Fegert stepped from the car and held a door open for her mother.

Within moments, the nurses had Mildred belted into the wheelchair. She called to her husband, “Clifford, Clifford.”

The nurses turned to Joan and her siblings, saying, “Go. Come back Saturday.”

Long time coming

Describing that wrenching Thursday in October, there is compassion in Joan’s voice, but not regret.

It was a day that had been coming for years.

Joan estimates it was six years, driving from her home in Battle Lake, Minn., to her parents’ home in Moorhead several times a week to provide Mom and Dad with meals.

There was the coping with her mother’s increasing mental confusion that began about 20 years ago with the onset of mini strokes.

There was an incident with a car.

And there was Mildred’s proclivity for “saving,” which in recent years led to a house filled with so many items it was difficult to navigate, especially for a couple in their 90s.

The past two years were especially hard, according to Joan.

“I spent a lot of time crying and venting to my husband,” says Joan, who at 71 has reached an age when many people are starting to deal with their own age-related issues.

“But I’m blessed with good health and a lot of energy,” Joan says, adding that her husband, also 71, is her rock when things get tough.

“When I’m crying, he says, ‘Enough is enough.’ ” Joan says.

One night apart

For Joan and her family, the turning point came in August, when Mildred fell and broke her pelvis.

Joan says the additional stress the injury placed upon her and her father was too much.

A moment arrived when she and her dad admitted to themselves and each other that things couldn’t continue as they had.

“I finally just broke down and told him how really tired I was getting,” Joan says.

It was then that her father, who just turned 96, confessed he, too, was worn out.

“When that came about, Dad and I could be a little more truthful with one another,” Joan says.

For her father, she adds, the possibility of changing the life he and his wife had shared in their Moorhead home since 1962 was daunting.

“They’ve been married almost 73 years, and they’d been apart one night,” Joan says.

First steps

With her father on board, Joan was ready to help her parents make a change, but where to begin?

“I was at a loss. I really struggled. I just really struggled,” she says.

Then a friend introduced her to Lyle Hoxtell, coordinator on aging for Otter Tail County Public Health, who had filled in on a Sunday for the pastor at Joan’s church.

“He got me started so I could go to the next step,” says Joan, adding Hoxtell helped her get in touch with social workers in Clay County who initially worked to set up in-home services for her parents.

When it became clear they needed more help, Joan began making arrangements, with the cooperation of her father, for her parents to go to the Golden Living Community.

Several days before the big step, Clifford put his signature on the papers.

“He signed it as straight as an arrow,” Joan says.

The plan was to have them spend some time in the nursing-home side of the facility until Mildred’s injury healed.

Then they would move to an apartment in the assisted-living area of the facility.

But first, they had to get Mildred there.

On that fateful Thursday in October, Joan, along with her two sisters and a brother, took their parents to McDonald’s, one of Mildred’s favorite things to do with her family.

After dinner, they drove to the Golden Living Community on the east edge of Moorhead, where the nurses and wheelchair waited.

‘Treated very well’

Joan says nurses told her later that her mother had had some choice words for her and her siblings after being dropped off.

However, when Joan returned to the living center two days after her parents arrived, all seemed forgiven.

She found her mother happily playing bingo.

“They’re in their own apartment now and are doing wonderful,” Joan says.

“I still go up there two, three times a week. I do all the bookkeeping and the taxes and so on.”

And how do Clifford and Mildred like it?

“I miss my house, but we’ve been treated very well here,” Mildred says.

Clifford takes the question as an opportunity to joke a bit: “I tell my buddies: Never in my wildest dreams would I think I’d get this old and be able to hire that many beautiful women to look after me.”

“Oh yeah, he’s always fussing with them women,” his wife chides. “And I’ve been looking after him for 72 years.”

After moving to Moorhead nearly five decades ago, both Bjerkes worked for Concordia College.

Clifford worked in the physical plant for many years and after retiring would still come in to help when someone went on vacation or was out sick.

He stopped doing that when he was 90.

Mildred did housecleaning in one of the campus residence halls.

“I like to brag I worked as a cleaning lady for 25 years and never missed a day,” she says.

Joan knows her parents are happy at Golden Living Community and says their contentment is complete because they are still together.

And she says her mom is doing better mentally now that her medication is being taken on a consistent schedule.

Knowing what she knows now, Joan says she’s sorry she didn’t take steps years ago to help her parents make a move.

Clifford says the transition probably bothered his wife more than it did him.

“I’m sort of adaptable,” he says.

“He likes the three meals a day,” Mildred explains.

“I realize it’s sort of better,” Clifford insists softly. “It’s for the better.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555