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Finding spirit and strength amidst a plague: Mika on taking care of an aging parent during Covid-19

"My advice if you’re taking care of an aging parent, keep it simple ...  It’s a very lonely time for many of our elderly parents, so percolate their lives with your voice," says Mika Brzezinski, who is the primary caretaker of her 88-year-old mother.
Mika Brzezinski with her 88-year-old mom, Emilie Brzezinski.
Mika Brzezinski with her 88-year-old mom, Emilie Brzezinski.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

When my mom moved down to Florida a few years ago, my entire family was marveling at her ability to regroup after losing her husband of 64 years, two heart attacks and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. There is no doubt that her passion for her art and the constant search for the next tree trunk to sculpt played a huge role in her ability to pivot. We spent a year moving her massive pieces of art to Florida, along with all her tools. We also visited many museums that were keen on showing her work. She had a life that I could support, with my mom pretty much in the driver’s seat.

But everything changed with Covid-19. Our regular lives stopped short, and it was extremely traumatizing for my mom. She began to tell me she did not have time for Covid-19, noting that she, at 88, “was literally running out of time.” I had to hold myself together upon hearing this. It was a moment I realized I needed to do more to support my mom. Much more. And it has not been easy.

Bottom line—it's an absolutely frightening time to be caring for an aging parent.

Mika Brzezinski with her mom, Emilie Brzezinski, and daughter, Emilie Hoffer.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

You’re often barred from visiting them if they live in a facility. You may struggle to find willing aides if they’re living at home. You’re likely worried about their physical and mental health. And above all else, you’re terrified that in helping your loved one, you might expose them to the potentially deadly coronavirus.

I know this firsthand as the primary caregiver to my mom, who everyone lovingly calls, “Bamba.”

Just a year ago, we were planning a huge opening at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Then after that it would be on to Miami at the Lowe Art Museum. As a sculptor, many of her days back then were spent in the studio, with a chainsaw in hand, preparing her signature, massive wood sculptures. She would also come to my house to swim for her daily exercise, see her grandchildren and visit with our pets. We’d all share a meal together.

No longer.

Like many Americans, Bamba, who also suffers from a bit of dementia, had to completely change her lifestyle due to Covid-19. She lives in what I call “the Bamba Bubble.” I’ve had to find a new approach to helping care of my mom to ensure she stays safe until she gets the vaccine—which I hope will be soon. We keep calling trying to find one for her.

It’s been hard and scary for her, and as each month ticks by, it’s become more challenging and it has impacted her health dramatically. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Bamba became dehydrated and fainted. We rushed her to the closest hospital, which was overrun with Covid-19 patients. Because the hospital was so full, they took her from me and slammed the door, leaving me outside. She had to sit in a cold room by herself for 10 hours. I was beside myself, knowing that she would grow increasingly confused.

Doctors would call me as I waited in the parking lot. They couldn’t find anything wrong except her sodium levels were off and as a result, they would need to keep her overnight. I was terrified for her. I begged for hours to come in and stay with her. They finally relented, and I was able to stay with her for the night if we stayed in the room with the door closed. The next morning, it was discovered that machine that checked her sodium levels was broken and that my mom’s numbers were fine! It was frustrating, and it took Bamba nearly two weeks to bounce back from the incident, which we still don’t know the cause of.

Mika Brzezinski said her mom, Emlie Brzezinski, remained in good spirits following a hospital stay a few weeks ago after she fainted.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

But I learned something from that day ― that my mom has a lot of strength and fight in her. She dug deep and persevered, at one point giving me the thumbs up, trying to make me feel better. She was very concerned about whether I had socks on and enough blankets as we settled down for the night locked in a room in a hospital filled with Covid-19 patients. We did our face creams together, and we did our best to keep a good mood going and got through the long night together.

Much of my day now is spent with my mom and just trying to keep her healthy. She needs my company to feel normal during these extraordinarily abnormal times. I moved everything inside the “Bamba Bubble.”

Her garage is a gym, with a bench, light weights and a stability ball. Since she can’t come to my house to swim anymore (it’s just too risky with kids in our house), I go to her and we lift weights together a few times a week, even just for five minutes at a time.

Mika Brzezinski and her mom, Emilie, lifting weights together.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

We’ve also turned her patio into what I call the “Bamba jungle.” She loves gardening and trees, so I literally brought them to her. The patio is now stuffed with all sorts of plants and trees that touch the ceiling and are growing across the screened roof. It’s where she spends most of her time now with my dad’s dog Daisy. It’s an oasis of calm in our chaotic world. We love it.

Mika Brzezinski and her mom spending time together outside on the patio in Florida.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

No matter what, I make sure she gets outside every day. It might be biking alongside me, walking Daisy, or with my daughter who is currently living at home. It might just be a few minutes outside, or a lot longer. But the fresh air does wonders to lift her spirits and mine.

I even get her out on my little, very tippy boat. The wind keeps the air fresh so it’s becoming an afternoon ritual. I drive it so slow, about three miles an hour, but it’s something to do. I also bring our animals, both the big ones and small ones, over to her. Bamba immediately starts laughing and smiling at the sight of one of our pets.

Mika Brzezinski and her mom, Emilie, spending time together outside on a boat.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

My advice if you’re taking care of an aging parent, keep it simple. Pets, walks, an herb garden, crafts. Whenever you have time, engage. It doesn’t matter if it’s in-person, on FaceTime, or on the phone. It’s a very lonely time for many of our elderly parents, so percolate their lives with your voice and joy.

Call often, even if they don’t remember it. Talk about family and the fun things that grandchildren are doing, and its OK if you repeat yourself. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming, and one might want to put those calls off. DON’T. Make it a routine to check in. And when you do, dig deep on positive topics.

There’s no need to weigh them down with the gravity of the situation, talking about the news or the daily death toll. Focus on the positive and overlook the negative. Talk about what’s in their power to enjoy.

Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

Typically, my mom watches a lot of cable news. She likes to see me on “Morning Joe” and know what’s going on in the world. But now, we watch a lot more animal and gardening shows. If you have an aging parent with real health issues, pandemic news can be very depressing. Now, Bamba and I talk about art, her grandchildren, exercise, and our animals, which have brought us an enormous amount of joy and distraction during these uncertain times.

Mika Brzezinski, Emilie Brzezinski and Emilie Hoffer go for a walk.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski

I am among the blessed. I am lucky to be close to my mom to see her in person. I am lucky to be able to be a personal part of her daily life, and I am grateful every day for this. Every time I want to complain, even for a second, I say it out loud: We are blessed. We just have to take it day by day to get through this difficult time. Eventually, the pandemic fog will lift.

I still dream that my mom will have her art show. And I know that one day she will. We won’t give up. Not on Bamba, no way!

Gotta go — its “Bamba Time"!