As parents age, the burden of guilt falls to the kids and neighbors

The Star Tribune doesn’t open up its online stories for comments when they deal with crime or “spot news”, and it’s probably for the best, especially in the horribly sad story of an elderly couple in Richfield.

Amy Parrish, 98, apparently fell down the stairs. Her husband, John, 95, tried to get to her. He fell, too.

And outside their neat cottage, life went on.

She died. He’s in “tough shape”, according to the Star Tribune. Neighbors hadn’t seen them since Memorial Day, and outside the papers were piling up in the driveway. That’s usually a bad sign when the couple inside are in their nineties.

But life went on.

Had the comments section been turned on, neighbor Helen Johnson would likely be an unfair target because she had the honesty to tell the reporter, “I mentioned [the newspapers] to my neighbors. I didn’t want to get involved — you know how that goes.”

She feels pretty bad with a bucketload of guilt right now. “I will feel better about it eventually,” she said, after being told by a chaplain not to beat herself up.

There are plenty of people in the world — especially online — who will help her do that, or judge the family who let their parents stay in the home they shared for so long.

Been there. Doing that. My 96-year-old mother won’t leave the home her father built for her after the war, which she shared with her husband of more than 60 years. Some neighbors, I hear, are aghast that her children would let her stay there at her age, and, indeed, the siblings are split on the question.

But the idea of forcing people out of their comfort in the last years, even if the house might eventually kill them, seems a poor alternative more designed to make us feel better about their living situation than them.

These are questions and scenarios that Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers are facing and, for the most part, they’re on their own trying to figure it out.

The Star Tribune series on young generations taking care of their elderly parents — a likely Pulitzer Prize winner, it seems to me — is documenting the gap between the real life issues that people have, and the ones politicians are more interested in addressing.

Spend some time looking at the picture at the very top of today’s installment because it captures, love, and desperation, and conflict in one image.

It’s the story of Christian Fritzberg, who tried to balance his job with taking care of his 74-year-old mother, who has Parkinson’s.

“I was pulled in two directions,” Fritzberg tells reporter Jackie Crosby. “At the beginning, they said they’d be flexible and would accommodate whatever time I needed. It went quickly to becoming an issue.”

A lot of employers say the right things when faced with employees who are torn between family and career. “Take the time you need.” Easier said than done.

Fritzberg lost his job.

At issue is paid family leave and it divides all the wings of today’s politicians. It wasn’t really Fritzberg’s employer’s job to bear the cost of taking care of his mom. And yet, as our parents live longer and require more sacrifice, the burden can bankrupt people and that’s no better a choice.

Politicians live in a black-and-white world where every issue is right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and there’s nothing to be gained by acknowledging the gray areas of reality in which normal people live.

The comments are open on that story and are worth reading. Everyone’s got a story. Nobody’s got a good answer.

Guilt we’ve got in abundance.