Heart of the Treasure Valley: Three generations, one house, one family

Beth Gee balances work, motherhood and caregiving — and discovers the greatest gift to leave her children

kjones@idahostatesman.comNovember 2, 2013 

Beth Gee’s family includes her husband, two children and her parents (plus four dogs). They live together so Beth can help care for her parents, who both face debilitating health issues. “Our unit includes three generations,” Beth says. “To us, that’s what a family is.” Multigenerational families were the norm decades ago, but there was no question where Beth was concerned. “(After my parents are gone, I know) I will be very grateful that I got to experience my life with them and that my kids got to experience their life with them. … My kids love their Nanny and Papa so much. It’s great to be able to see that relationship because not every kid gets that.” From left: Beth Gee; Teyla Gee, 6; Beth’s mother, Sherryl Winslow; Jaxon Gee, 4; and Beth’s father, Gary Winslow. Not pictured is Beth’s husband, Marcus Gee.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com


    “A caregiver is a family member, friend, or neighbor who helps someone who is frail or ill. If you are worried about someone’s well-being; if you manage household chores, bills, appointments for someone; if you contribute to someone’s care whether that person lives at home, in a nursing home, or across the country, you are a family caregiver. And you are not alone.

    “It’s been said there are only four types of people in the world: those who have been caregivers; those who currently are caregivers; those who will be caregivers; and those who will be cared for. (Rosalyn Carter) More than 65 million American family members are the front line of support for adults and children who cannot take care of themselves or who need help to be independent.”

    Friends in Action

  • Beth Gee co-teaches the Powerful Tools for Caregivers classes through Friends in Action, and while she jokes that she’s not a great role model, she reflects on some of the lessons that she’s learned along the way.

    “Because caregiving is exhausting … You have to take care of yourself. I’ve learned that you’re very hard on yourself, harder than other people are.

    “I also learned that you’re not all that special. What I mean is a lot of caregivers think that no one can do it better than I can because I love them. That may be right, but that’s OK: You have to accept help.

    “…I’m very good at offering help but not so good at accepting it. (But what I’ve learned is) that’s what’s going to get me through this — having church friends bring in meals, having church friends take the kids, having my best friend give me a hug when I need a hug.”

When Beth Gee was 15 years old, a sophomore in high school, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was unprepared for death; the thought of losing her mother terrified her.

She says: “We didn’t know if she was going to get to see me graduate from high school. Then we didn’t know if she would see me get married or have kids. …”

But Beth is now grown, married and has two children, and her mother, still living, has witnessed all of those milestones. Beth’s sense of impending loss and fear has been tempered over time into a gratefulness that seeps into all her thoughts about family.

“Maybe it was the fear of losing her (when I was so young) that means every minute you have — or every second you have — with them is amazing.”

And so, over the years, as Beth watched her mother’s health become increasingly more compromised by diabetes and a debilitating disease that leaves her in constant pain, there was no question in her mind.

“I knew as long as I could take care of her, I wouldn’t put her in a home. I also knew that Dad, as much as he loves her, can’t take care of her. …

“Does that mean she’ll never go into a home? No. But she knows, and we know as a family, that we will live together as long as we can.”

Beth is part of a “sandwich generation,” caring for both her children and her parents. At 37, she’s statistically a little younger than most caregivers, and at 57 and 63 years old, her parents are younger as well.

“When my husband married me, he knew eventually my mother or my family would live with us. Honestly, we thought that would be much down the road. … ”

But necessity doesn’t pay attention to statistics. As Beth’s mother, Sherryl Winslow, struggled with her health, her father was injured, was unable to work, lost his job and had to file for bankruptcy. So in 2010, Beth and her husband built a 425-square-foot addition on their house, and her parents moved in.

Sherryl: “No one likes being taken care of — you’re the strong one; you’re the mother. You want to take care of others. …You have to finally say you can’t do it all. You can’t do it any more.”

Beth: “Momma will tell you she doesn’t like to be a burden. … I’m having to remind her that she’s not a burden — she’s my mother. She’s my kids’ grandmother and every day that we have with her is a blessing.”

Beth is the primary caregiver for both her parents. She’s the one who takes them on doctor’s visits; she’s the one who cares for them when they’re sick. It’s a full-time responsibility — added to her roles as wife and mother and to her full-time job as a program coordinator for the biomolecular sciences Ph.D. program at Boise State University.

“There is someone needing something from me all the time. The time I drive — from home to work, and from work to home — are the only two times in my day that someone doesn’t need something from me.

“That’s probably been the most challenging — and rewarding, because you like to feel needed. But there are times you’d like to be alone.”

She and her husband work as a team. They’re both very different — Beth is outgoing and effusive; Marcus is quiet and solid. Beth is the caregiver; he keeps her grounded.

“When you have young kids, they’re usually the first priority. When you have a sick parent, the priority changes to them, so it’s forever fluctuating. It’s doesn’t go to Marcus, much. … (But) he’s always there to support me no matter what I’m doing. ... He’s my rock. ...

“I have felt unconditional love from my parents, but with him, I truly feel it every day.”

Living together intergenerationally requires some skill. The four adults — Beth and Marcus, Sherryl and Gary — work hard at communication. Really hard, says Beth, balancing the need for both information — so she can know, for instance, how bad her mother’s pain is so she can help her — and the need for space, respect and independence.

Sherryl: “I learned with my own mother it doesn’t matter how much you love someone — even more than life itself — everyone gets tired of hearing complaints of illness when it’s day in and day out. …

“You love that person so much, you want to care for them, but at the same time, your mind and your body can only take so much. There has to be a release in some way, whether it be shortness or tears.”

Beth: “That stress will come out in some way, and it’s typically towards the person that you’re caring for.”

What Beth and her mother share is a great capacity to laugh and a well-honed ability to talk things out.

“My mom is my best friend and she has been all my life,” says Beth.

Sherryl: “I can’t think of a greater blessing than having (my daughter) take care of me and us living together.

“I can’t even begin to put it into words. Not just my grandkids, but my child — seeing the person that (Beth) has evolved into, day in and day out, including the struggles … what she has become and made of herself. What parent wouldn’t want to see that, day in and day out?

“And the grandkids. There’s just no greater joy. …There is nothing like being able to kiss your grandkids good morning and goodnight.”

Taking care of her parents helped Beth discover her heart’s work, which is caring for elderly people. This spring, she finished her masters in gerontology. Along the way, she volunteered at a hospice and with Friends in Action, where she teaches a class for caregivers (see sidebar and online links).

“I took the classes to learn how to be a leader, and I realized it charged my battery as well. … I’m giving of myself, but I get something back from (other caregivers). I get to hear their stories; I hear about struggles. (And) because I’m in the same situation as them — providing care — I can empathize with them.”

But probably the most powerful event in her life was the death of her grandmother.

“I knew I loved elderly people, but I knew they’d die on me and that scared me.”

In 2008, her grandmother was three days in intensive care, alive only because of the technology that kept her heart beating.

“And I knew she wouldn’t want to live this way. … It became very obvious that it was time for her to go.”

The family agonized and made the decision.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be in the room with a dead body, what’s going to happen?’ And when she passed away, I didn’t feel that at all. It was very peaceful. The whole room was filled with peace.

“ … It was beautiful. It was absolutely beautiful. It’s one of my greatest memories. And it made me realize that it’s OK when people die, and sometimes it’s better when people die.

“That kind of gave me the courage to say, ‘I really like old people and I’m no longer afraid of them passing away on me.’”

And so, death is no longer hidden in Beth’s family. She and her parents have had “the hard talks” about their passing, and her children are aware that people die even if they don’t know quite what that means.

“We haven’t talked about Mom and Dad passing away, but we don’t hide death from them. …They know that Nanny’s sick; they know that Nanny gets sick and has to go to the hospital. Thank God, we’ve always brought Nanny home. ...

“(My mother) has always said, ‘When I die, just remember I’m not in pain anymore.’ We hope that’s a long time away, but she’s right. … (When the time comes), God will help me figure out what to say — I’ll just tell them the same thing I tell myself: that she’s not in pain anymore. They get that; they see it every day of their lives. …

“I think the greatest gift we can give to the kids as a family is for them to experience a beautiful death … surrounded with loved ones. …

“That’s what I hope for everyone I know, my family and friends: that they have a beautiful death.”

May that be a long time in coming, she repeats, but the inevitability of death only saturates the joy the family has in being together.

“Whether you’re religious or not, whether you believe in karma or you believe Heavenly Father is going to look out for you, your blessings are going to be returned. And I believe that my blessings are already being returned for all the stuff that we (get to do) as a family. …

“This isn’t an extended family. This is a family.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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