When her 86-year-old mom died in September, Ronna Fillhart said goodbye knowing she'd been the best possible daughter - even if her mother never seemed to appreciate it.
With help from one of her own daughters, Ronna had looked out for the older woman for the last five years. Suffering from alcohol-induced dementia and depression, her mother moved into a skilled-nursing facility for her final 15 months of life.
Unfortunately, she'd forgotten it was her idea to move into the place where her friend lived. The mother began to accuse the daughter of placing her there because she "hated" her.
"There was nothing I could do right; basically, that's how it was all my life," the "dutiful daughter" says. According to Ronna, her mother was a functioning alcoholic, a binge drinker who for many years was "emotionally and physically abusive" to her.
Even so, Ronna never questioned her responsibility, nor resented the situation. She simply took care of her mother and advocated tirelessly for her, because it was the right thing to do.
Ronna admits she did it more for herself than her mom. "You want to respect yourself. I would have felt guilty if I hadn't stepped in and cared for her."
Relationships between mothers and daughters are never simple. And, Ronna says she admired her mother in some says. For one thing, her mom cared for her own mother and mother-in-law. For another, the older woman, a real estate agent for 20 years, was a tireless volunteer in her community. She started a local historical society, helped reorganize the Chamber of Commerce, started the elementary school PTA and worked on elections. She also helped Ronna, a single mother, with her three daughters and seven grandchildren.
Eventually, Ronna says, she was able to get past the abuse and controlling behavior and see her mother's alcoholism as a sickness. "I never hated her for it. I don't hold grudges. I guess I felt a little sorry for her."
So, in spite of her mother's wrath, Ronna was determined to look out for her. Two of the toughest things to deal with were the facility's medical director, who was difficult to contact, and the facility's high staff turnover.
Finally, Ronna figured out how to get timely medical attention. If she didn't get a return phone call from the medical director in a reasonable time, she would make up to two calls to the nurses. If there was no response, she would fax the administrator, head nurse, nurses' station and doctor.
Fortunately, Ronna, a San Diego apartment manager, had a flexible schedule and could do what was needed when it was needed.
The biggest lessons she learned from her experience: Some people, including her mom, will never be happy. "So let go." Set your priorities and pick your battles, save your energy for the ones that are really important. "I don't worry about things. If something happens, I just take care of it."
Ronna adds, "I miss my mom. I'm sorry she couldn't have gone easier."
Now, the "retired caregiver" is planning to share her hard-won knowledge with adult children just beginning their journey. She is starting a nonprofit group called PIC, Partners in Caregiving, and is looking for other retired caregivers as volunteers. They would be hands-on advocates, helping other "dutiful children" deal with the cumbersome health-care system.
"I always feel if I have a burden and have to get through it, I should use it to help others. Than the burden becomes a blessing."