Barbara Miller teaches us about compassion and aging

. 5 min read
The All Mental Health Team

Barbara Miller works full-time at for a nonprofit that empowers healthy habits and transform environments where children live, learn and play. She writes for her blog Lifelessyoung, and provides care for her aging mother. She’s been an early reader of Caring for You, and we’re here today to learn more about her story.

Caring for You: Welcome, Barbara. Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us. Can you start by telling us about how you found yourself in a caregiving role?

Barbara Miller: It was around the time I started my Masters program in gerontology. I was actually driving 3 hours every other weekend to look after my mother and make sure things were going well. But I started noticing changes in her. Depression, anxiety, and memory issues were starting to settle in. My sister and I observed that this pillar of strength we had always looked up to was now a changing woman. It was a very difficult transition for all involved.
When I first started going down to visit more often, my mom felt like we were trying to take over her life or challenge her independence. She was very resistant. Then, she had a medical emergency. Her doctor told her she couldn’t live alone anymore. I live in Atlanta, my sister lives in Tennessee. So, my mother moved in with my sister for 6 months. And this past 6 months she has lived with me. Going forward we have decided to move together to afford her the best possible care.

CFY: In your blog, Lifelessyoung, you write about the delicate balance of caregiving, especially with role reversal: “I refer to myself as my Mother’s Mother…because our roles have reversed and believe me it is an intimidating and frightening reversal. She is still the ‘leader of the band’ but time has slowed her march. The baton has been passed to me.” Can you speak to this role reversal and the balance you and your sister are finding?

Barbara: With the memory issues and aging there was some anger and a tremendous amount of grief. We were trying to find a delicate balance between doing what we knew had to be done and doing it in a very compassionate way. There were times no matter how much compassion we showed, there was a lot of resistance.

I’m 62 years old and my sister is 59. But my mother still looks at us as these very young women. I think it’s because of the way we’re aging. By the time she was in her 60’s she was already exhibiting society's definition of old age. My generation is redefining aging in that we’re continuing to work, play, and lead very fulfilling lives way beyond the age of 65. My mother took care of her mother who suffered from chronic illness and depression. She also took care of her siblings all victims of chronic illnesses. Because of this I believed mother assumed that their aging journeys were typical and would be hers. My mother was physically strong and to some degree she still is. But, with her family history and nothing else to model healthy aging by, it took a toll on her both mentally and physically.

One day I turned and looked at her and said, “you do know that I get a discount on Wednesday just like you do...” I had to remind her that I’m what society considers to be a senior citizen, too.

CFY: What’s your day-to-day like as a caregiver?

Barbara: Well, like I mentioned, in the last 6 months she has lived with me. I live in an active senior community. Very few of the residents out here work, but I still have a full-time job. It’s difficult to do both because the symptoms of my mother’s moderate dementia can often change courses quickly and the effects can be daunting. I appreciate having the degree in gerontology, but textbook knowledge doesn’t always help when it’s your own mother. I can often apply what I’ve learned, but it’s harder when that person is a beloved parent. We choose our battles wisely and we have become very attuned to the times when we need to step back and give her space. My sister and I work hard to lower the risk factors associated with aging such as falling. Keeping her healthy, safe, honoring her feelings, and assuring her that she is loved is our daily goal.

There are such days of joy, just getting to know her. But there are also days of great despair, especially when she is in the grip of dementia-related depression and paranoia, we have to work twice as hard to bring her back into the light. My sister and I take things one day, one moment at a time.

We both spend a fair amount of money for someone to come in and stay with her while we work. Elder care is very expensive. We are both trying to find that work-life balance. She can’t be alone, someone has to be with her.

When I spend time with her, I often remind her about the many worthwhile things she did in her life. Like, “remember that in all the years you worked as a Quality Assurance technician in a frozen food plant, you never had one recall on food that you said was okay to be shipped out to the nation. What an awesome accomplishment that is.” She went as far as the 11th grade, married my father, had me. There weren’t a lot of options. She did domestic work but around the age of 30 she was trained as a Quality Control Technician in a frozen food plant. My mother was very bright, she also was an excellent seamstress and beautician. She worked at the plant right alongside college interns sent to her from the University of GA for her to train. My sister and I reiterate to her that she was and is valuable, she is enough. It’s helpful for both of us to reflect on my mother’s life, to reminisce about everything she’s accomplished. “Aging and regret are a powerful toxic cocktail.”

CFY: Tell us about your decision to start your blog, lifelessyoung.

Barbara: Well, my background is in childcare and I still work in childcare for a nonprofit. About six years ago the opportunity to enroll in the masters of gerontology program came along. It was at this time I started thinking, “Maybe it's time I learned more and do something that involves working and contributing to the lives of my new (Life Less Young) tribe.” My mother was starting to go through her life changes at the same time I was going through menopause, yikes! Sometimes, when I am on Instagram, I’m reading the posts about what a wonderful life everyone is having. I post some of that too, by the way, but there is also a very real downside to getting older. Aging is both beautiful and sometimes difficult–the blog is a way for me to keep it all in perspective and make myself laugh about it. Or say something that might help someone else who needs encouragement on this journey.

CFY: Well, we’ve certainly learned a lot from you and your blog. Thanks so much for sharing it. Anything you’d like to leave us with, Barbara?

Barbara: When you’re raising a child, you’re seeing progression as that child ages. When you’re taking care of your aging parent, you’re witnessing a decline, a slippery slope of which you have little control. So, you control what you can and encourage yourself with Grace and new Mercies everyday. This journey I’m taking with my mother is not easy...but what is, when you’re nurturing relationships? I refer to myself as my mother’s mother. I truly believe that taking care of our parents is the next public health crisis.