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A full-time caretaker reflects on living and caring for her ailing mom

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In her latest look at folks living in multigenerational households, NPR's Claire Murashima brings us the story of a woman in Healdsburg, Calif., who has questioned what it means to be living with her mom as a 34-year-old.

CLAIRE MURASHIMA, BYLINE: Lauren Ahlgren is a swim instructor. She's also a writer and a full-time caregiver to her mom.

LAUREN AHLGREN: My mom used to semi-joke when we were younger that once she got older, she's like, just take my license away. And I thought of that when we did have to, like, take her car away from her.

MURASHIMA: She grappled with societal expectations around living at home when her mom developed early onset Alzheimer's.

AHLGREN: At first it was - there was kind of, like, a little bit of shame. Or, like, I guess I kind of felt weird about being in my 30s and living back at home. It's not what I had envisioned for myself. And I definitely didn't expect my mom to get ill so early on in her later years. So that really didn't, like, sit well with me.

MURASHIMA: Before becoming a caregiver, Lauren used to go on weekly hikes and travel. One day, she wants kids, but she doesn't have a partner, nor does she have time to date.

AHLGREN: I just feel like a single mom, and I really miss all the other aspects of my life.

MURASHIMA: She's dealing with something else, as well.

AHLGREN: It's also really hard to grieve someone when they are alive. It's such a drawn-out process with Alzheimer's.

MURASHIMA: She's asked her two siblings for help. But...

AHLGREN: At this point, even though I've asked for help many times, it just kind of, like, always ends up being on my plate anyway. So I just take charge.

MURASHIMA: For the last couple of years, she's had to evacuate because of the Northern California wildfires. She also lives with the uncertainty of whether or not she'll be able to even afford more advanced care for her mom one day. But Lauren says one of the toughest things is the isolation. She's been vocal with family and friends, but it's all a growing burden.

AHLGREN: This has been ongoing for five years now, and I'm tired of talking about the same thing.

MURASHIMA: Lauren says the one silver lining of the pandemic is that she was able to save money. For the most part, she could still work but wasn't spending very much. Before the pandemic, though, she says, they were living paycheck to paycheck.

AHLGREN: My mom is low income, and her Social Security doesn't even cover half her mortgage. So I have to cover everything else.

MURASHIMA: She's in the process of selling the house they live in. And once they sell it, Lauren hopes there will be enough money to move her mom into a memory care facility. As it is, she spends a lot of money on making sure someone is always looking after her.

AHLGREN: So in order to go to work, I have to hire a caregiver to hang out with her, which is great. She loves it. But it's definitely expensive.

MURASHIMA: Lauren has developed strategies to make it work, like starting each day with the same ritual.

AHLGREN: Hi. Good morning.

I make a point of spending every morning waking up and then going into her room to cuddle her and the dog just so we can start the morning off on, like, a good note.

How come you're hanging off the bed here? Oh, the dogs took your spot. Here.

MURASHIMA: She's making the most of their time together before someone else becomes her mom's primary caregiver. And maybe then she'll find the time to go on those hikes and start thinking about building a family of her own, the life she thought she'd be living at 34.

Claire Murashima, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COM TRUISE'S "PROPAGATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.