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Caring for parents is a tough and tender job

My mother was ready to cry, the sound of her quivering voice mixing with the static hum on my portable phone.

She was upset because she had forgotten it was Thursday _ an important day because a bus comes to her retirement community and takes her and others shopping. She had missed the weekly bus.

Now my mother was convinced her 76-year-old mind was fading.

This might seem silly to younger people, who figure the days by how long it is until Friday or checking what's on television. We are used to forgetting things _ paying the bills, picking up the kids at soccer practice, calling home on birthdays.

But in the connect-the-dot world my mother lives in, forgetting the day of the week was only a few steps from Alzheimer's disease and around the corner from going into the nursing home.

I grabbed the remote and turned down Neil Young on the CD player. I checked the clock, because the frozen lasagna would be ready soon, and I didn't want it to burn.

I tried to be a son, from 1,000 miles away.

After 10 minutes on the phone, we were laughing. My mother said she felt better, and a little silly for making such a fuss.

I hung up, a once-a-week son wondering when I should schedule my once-a-year trip home.

I am not alone. There are millions of adult children with aging parents. Even when they are physically and mentally healthy _ as my mother usually is _ we wonder and worry.

Should we call home more? Why did we move out of the neighborhood, or as I did, out of state? Should we run up the credit cards for an extra trip home this year?

Can we do more? And how come our brothers and sisters back home don't do their share?

If our parents live close, we wonder whether we are abusing their good nature. Should we dump the kids on them each weekend, or every day after school?

What happens if our parents get sick? Should they come to live with us? Should we _ could we _ move home?

I wonder how long it will be before forgetting the day of the week is the least of my mother's problems.

Maybe Mom or Dad is frail and we have entered what researchers call the sandwich generation _ those adult children who help care for older parents and their own younger children.

We call in sick to take Mom to the doctor or stay with Dad because he's having a bad day. We neglect our children, our spouses, our work. We feel squeezed between guilt that says we are not doing enough and selfishness that says we don't want to do any more.

Maybe all this is made harder because we never got along all that well with our parents.

All this is so common today, perhaps we don't even notice. It's as if we all looked up and suddenly we were older _ and our parents were a lot older.

We think it's a subject people should be discussing. And this column is a start.

First, please don't think I am saying all older people need help. My mother would thrash me if I said that to her. Like many people, she guards her independence fiercely.

But consider the numbers: There are more than 31-million people older than age 65, with 13-million older than 75. That generation gave birth to the largest group of babies ever born in America _ the 76-million post-war baby boomers like me.

Now we are in our 30s and 40s. In less than three years, the first of the baby boomers _ people like President Clinton _ turn 50 and can pay their $8 and become members of the American Association of Retired Persons.

"There is no historical precedent for the experience of most middle-aged and young-old people having living parents," says the book Women on the Front Lines: Meeting the Challenge of an Aging America. "It has been estimated that one in three 50-year-old women had living mothers in 1940, and that by 1980, that proportion had doubled to two in three."

Most of us are unprepared for the aging of our parents. We don't know what role we can or should play.

Each month, we plan to take a look what gerontologists call caregiving. We'll look at how individuals handle different situations. We'll offer tips and advice. We'll answer questions.

But I am not the expert _ two years or so writing about elder affairs has taught me that much. I want to hear what you would like to see in this column.

Write me care of the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731 or call me at (813) 893-8338 or (800)-333-7505, ext. 8338.