Three flags hang proudly over the front porch of Chantha Soun’s house, on a busy residential street in Lowell: an American flag, a Buddhist flag and a Cambodian flag. Soun lives on the second floor of the house with her husband, her four children and also her parents. A long time ago, Soun made her parents a promise.
“My mom and dad, they brought me up very well,” said Soun. “They asked me, ‘One day, if I’m very sick, will you be able to take care of me?’ “I’m like, ‘Yes, I’ll take care of you with all my heart, the way you brought me up. I’ll give you all my love, the way you loved me. I’ll stay home to take care of both of you.’”
Soun had no idea what it would mean to take care of her parents. She made her promise before her father became sick and needed open heart surgery, and before her mother began suffering from dementia.
For 37-year-old Soun, looking after her parents meant giving up a job she enjoyed in bio-tech research, giving up her social life and even risking her marriage. There have also been some scary moments, like the day Soun woke up and realized her mom was missing from the house.
“One morning I couldn’t find her,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Ma where are you? Are you going to eat?’ I look all over for her. I couldn’t find her. I get into a panic. I look all around, I call everybody: ‘Have you seen my mom?’ I run into the street. She’s next door (on the) porch. I would never think that she would go to the next door porch, never.”
Since that episode with her mother, Soun has installed six home surveillance cameras. Grainy black and white images of all the doors to her house flicker on a computer screen in the living room. She has also bought plenty of locks. There is even a lock to the kitchen where Soun once discovered her 78-year-old mother cooking in the wee hours of the morning.
“One time I was sleeping," she said. "In the middle of the night she gets up. I hear something like water dripping. She re-cooked the food that I cooked, but she didn’t realize that she was burning the pot. You could smell it, and the alarm just ring up, and my kids wake up. They’re like, 'Oh my goodness, grandma is cooking something at 4 o’clock in the morning. Wow, goodness.’ So, I ran there, I put everything away, and I’m like if I didn’t get up in time she’s going to kill all of us in the house.”
On top of experiences like that, Soun has been stretched in ways she never imagined. When her mother needed surgery, Soun learned how to feed her with feeding tubes. Lots of family caregivers are taking on complicated tasks like these, according to Dr. Sharon Levine, a geriatrician at Boston Medical Center and a professor at Boston University School of Medicine. She said that these days patients are being discharged from the hospital quicker and sicker, and that means more challenging jobs for caregivers.
“Like administering intravenous medications or caring for loved ones who need feeding tubes and wound care that nurses used to do,” said Levine. “It’s that, plus the bathing, grooming, dressing, feeding, transferring, managing the bills, cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry.”
Levine said there are lots of services to help caregivers, but coordinating everything can be tough. She suggests hiring a geriatric care manager.
“They know the systems for getting a money manager to help somebody pay bills, to get home delivered meals, to get home delivered medications, to find personal care to come into the home, and that really takes a load off,” she said.
Chantha Soun gets help from a nurse and a care manager through a company called Caregiver Homes. The program is paid for by the state’s Medicaid program. The support has made all the difference. Soun does not regret her promise to care for parents. In fact, she expects her kids to look after her when she gets old.
“I have a high hope that my kids will take care of me and my husband, because all the care that I give to my mom and dad, they’ve seen it, and they think that it’s an appropriate way to return all the help,” she said. “I’ve helped them. I gave birth to them and I raised them in a good way, in a good family, in a good heart. They’re very grateful that I take good care of them. They will do the same way.”
Soun, of all people, knows what that commitment means.
Chantha Soun Shows Elizabeth Ross Precautions She Has Taken In Her Home:
- Boston ElderInfo
- National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers
- Caregiver Homes
- Dr. Sharon Levine
- Boston Medical Center Geriatric Services
- AARP study on home care