Two hit TV shows, The Golden Girls and The Big Bang Theory, about adult children living with their parents remind of the parallels that exist in my own life. In The Golden Girls, of the four women, one is a tough loving mother (Sophia Petrillo) and the other one is her snarky daughter (Dorothy Zbornak). I first remember watching the show as a kid with my own parents. The situation seemed nice enough. It was set in sunny Miami, Florida, with palm trees galore. The characters were economically well off, had plenty of space to share, still able-bodied, and even with their comical ups and downs, they all got along well with each other. I didn’t ever see any of the characters use any kind of medical aids, exhibit dementia, have the TV volume blaring, or wear adult diapers. Only the character Rose was made fun of for being naïve and ditzy, but not necessarily due to any medical cognitive issues. The character Blanche was the sexy Southern one.
As a kid, I never thought about my parents getting older. Where would they live? Who would take care of them? Do they have enough money saved for retirement? For a little bit, my grandmother lived with us, but then was sent to a nursing home. She had previously lived in a small house not too far from us, but after a break-in, she didn’t feel safe living alone. I didn’t remember why was sent to the nursing home. I only had fun memories of watching soap operas with her in the summer, and her trying to shut her door numerous times to get it to “stick” properly. A few months after she had left, I remember getting told by my middle school guidance counselor that she had died. I remember feeling sad that I wasn’t with her. At her funeral, I played one of her favorite songs, Moonlight Sonata.
Still, I didn’t picture living with my own mom – even after I saw my grandmother living with us. It just didn’t seem like this was what “people did.”
Fast forward a few decades, and I began watching the comedy TV show The Big Bang Theory. It’s about a group of four male scientists who are close friends. Two live together as roommates (with a highly detailed roommate contract), while the other two have separate living arrangements. Specifically, the character Howard Wolowitz still lives with his mother, Mrs. Wolowitz, in the family house. This is a longstanding point of contention and the source of many jokes between the group and Howard. There is a consistent storyline of Howard living with his demanding and challenging, abrasive-voiced mother, who is visually absent throughout the series. Usually, Mrs. Wolowitz is yelling from another room and even another level of the house, and Howard is yelling back. They both make sharp and poignant jabs with each other. And as Howard’s relationship develops with the character Bernadette, there is clearly tension between the two important women in his life.
Admittedly, I haven’t kept up on either of the shows. I don’t know how The Golden Girls ended, and I’ve mostly seen reruns of The Big Bang Theory, although I did see the touching and sentimental episode after Mrs. Wolowitz’s death. Fortunately, I can watch both on a few different streaming options or channel apps. I am also excited to continue watching Black’ish and Fresh Off the Boat, which also has a parent(s) living with their adult children. Still, in Black’ish, the family is financially well off and able-bodied. In FOB, I love that the character only speaks in Mandarin and is in a motorized chair. However, I have never seen the dad do any transfers for her, or the mom giving her a bath.
Now to present day – I’m 43 years old, divorced and have recently moved from noisy, urban Chicago to the quiet, suburban city of Greenwood, Indiana, to live with my mom who is almost 80 years old, in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Six years ago, I helped sell her house and move into an assisted living facility. Then, for the past five years, I have been the primary caregiver coming down to Indiana at least once a month (if not more). However, financially, assisted living is not sustainable with the base rent at least $3,100 or higher, plus health/medical as additional expenses. It was this past year, that it seemed like we only had two options. Either spend her money down, apply for Medicaid, and have her live in probably a not so nice share space. Or, we could live together. Fortunately, I was getting to the point of my PhD program that I did not have to be on campus regularly. Due to my divorce, I didn’t have a spouse with whom to negotiate.
It’s now been nearly four months since I moved back to Indiana and nearly two months living with mom. There’s definitely been ups and downs, but I try and stay grateful for this new kind of relationship we are both having with each other. Even in our small, two-bedroom apartment, I sometimes find me yelling back to her. Yelling, because she is hard of hearing, but also because I am starting to get frustrated. I try and remain patient. I try and breathe. I try and count to 10. I think she’s happier and healthier than before, but I know she misses some of her friends from the assisted living facility. We’ve both had to find our own routine throughout the day. We both are finding, when we need alone time. She’ll go into her bedroom and paint. I might go to the workout room. We’re still figuring things out. We’ve hired eight hours of help through one of the many possible agencies in the area to relieve me. During this relief, I attend yoga, an improv class, and play tennis.
As a Disability Studies scholar, I believe she has been liberated from an institutional facility – even though it was a nice institution, it was still an institution. She had less personal agency and self-determination. Her time was not her own with very little ability to leave the building as there was always something wrong with the shuttle bus. Although I felt reassured that there was care 24/7, I saw a decline and inconsistency of care in the past few years, while we still paid almost $2000 for health/medical care on top of base rent. All the people “on the ground,” worked multiple jobs and were underpaid. I believe CNAs earn only minimum wage and probably don’t work enough for health insurance benefits. As a feminist, I feel like I’m doing one of the most feminist things possible. Similar, but different than, raising a child. I know a lot of people doing eldercare make this parallel, but I must assert, that eldercare is very different. Yes, being responsible for someone is the same, but that someone is your parent… not your kid. That someone still has years of life experience, hopes, dreams, and desires. That someone (sometimes) can feel regret, embarrassment, and guilt that they need care from their child. There are different power dynamics between caregiving with a parent and a kid.
Sometimes with my group of friends who are mostly Asian American and queer, I joke that we will do The Golden Girls model when we’re all old. We’ll find an accessible, one-story house using Universal Design. We’ll live somewhere with great public transportation and a vibrant, diverse LGBTQI community. For someone who has worked over 20 years in higher education, I would suggest that we should live near a university so that we can participate in all the free and public event opportunities. We’ll hire the young folks to be our aids, and we’ll pay them a decent living wage.
I don’t know how long I’ll live with mom. Her health is okay enough that I have the mental and physical capacity to be her direct, daily caregiver. But as we all know, that could change quickly. We just try and take it day by day and live with thoughtfulness and kindness – even if it does include yelling from the living room to the bedroom with the TV volume up to 50.
Bio: liz (they/them/theirs) is a cisgender, Vietnamese adoptee who identifies as bi/queer and gender non-conforming. Their parents were two, white female siblings who never married and raised liz in the northeast part of Indianapolis. Ma died in 2010, and Mom was her primary caregiver until the very end. liz earned an M.A. in Women and Gender Studies and are now in a Disability Studies, PhD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. liz is a photographer, community organizer, educator, and passionate about advocating for the rights of all vulnerable and marginalized communities.