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Increasing number of children assuming healthcare responsibilities for parents

Heidi Nunnikhoven, left, and her youngest daughter Marieke enjoy a conversation with Heidi's parents Bill and Marie Bowes in the living room of their home in Steamboat Springs on Wednesday. Nunnikhoven and her family moved in with the elderly couple recently to help provide care and support.
Brian Ray

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For many children, parents are superheroes, so figuring out how to handle their parents' healthcare as they age is difficult, but it is necessary, say Visiting Nurse Association officials.

The VNA and local doctors often are experienced with working with the elderly, so anyone with questions is encouraged to contact a professional for assistance. Katy Thiel, a social worker with VNA, said an in-home assessment will help identify needs and will help children identify the proper healthcare route for their parents.

A vase of lavender tulips sits on a table to the right of Marie Bowes’ recliner. To Marie’s left is a picture window overlooking a giant meadow turned green with the change of seasons. Snow still covers the mountain peaks that tower above the meadow.

The view is one of Marie’s favorites, said her daughter, Heidi Nunnikhoven. Marie even wrote a poem about the meadow outside her home on Routt County Road 36.

Giving Marie the chance to remain at home while suffering the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s is important to Heidi.



“She is the best,” Heidi said. “What a great mom.”

Today is Mother’s Day, and the vase of purple tulips are a reminder to Marie that her children are thinking about her, but Heidi and her husband, Tony, and their daughters Sandy and Marieke Nunnikhoven have given Marie a gift that gives back daily – home healthcare.



Bill Bowes remains the primary caregiver for his wife of 59 years, but the longtime residents of Steamboat need the help of Heidi, who, with her family, moved in with her parents five years ago.

Marie’s three other daughters also live in Routt County.

“Dad can take care of Mom, and we can help him,” Heidi said. “It’s nice to have Mom at home. We like the multi-generational family. In history, you were always taking care of the elderly. It’s the natural thing to do.”

Heidi is an example of the growing number of adults in Routt County and nationwide who are moving in with their parents or are moving their parents in with them to assume healthcare responsibilities.

In 1900, one out of four Americans lived beyond the age of 65. Today, 75 percent of Americans live to be older than 65, and the fastest-growing segment of the population is those older than 85.

What it all means is that adults in their 40s and 50s represent the first generation of Americans who likely will spend more years caring for their parents than they cared for their own children.

It is a challenging dynamic for both the elderly and their children, a local healthcare professional said.

“For many, especially people who can’t afford to pay for caregivers, the family has become the primary caregiver,” said Katy Thiel, a social worker for Hospice and home health through the Visiting Nurse Association. “A lot of times it’s a 24-hour job, and these caregivers are still working-age with families of their own, and now they also have their parent.”

The VNA and local doctors provide a multitude of services for the elderly, including healthcare, consultations and counseling. In Routt County, Thiel said age truly is a number because she often doesn’t see clients until they are in their 80s or 90s due to their active lifestyle.

“They are so independent, and here they are needing help,” Thiel said. “To live that long and live such a good life, when it does happen it’s hard to scramble to get care.”

That is why healthcare professionals and clients agree dialogue between a parent and child about future healthcare is necessary – even if discussing the mortality of a parent remains one of the most uncomfortable conversations a child can have with their mom or dad.

“To be honest, it should start as early as possible,” Mary Ebner said.

Ebner is the mother of Sue Birch, the executive director of VNA. Birch is providing temporary care after Ebner underwent hip replacement surgery Wednesday. Ebner lives in Silver Spring, Md., but she is thrilled to have the chance to rehabilitate in a small setting with three grandchildren around.

“I like it when the family helps take care of the senior,” said Ebner, who cared for her mother for 12 years and her mother-in-law for four years. “I’m very happy that I can be here with Susie. I hope I’m not too much trouble.”

Quite the contrary.

“I’ve had an incredible mom (for a) role model,” Birch said. “It’s my turn to care for her.”

Although Ebner plans to return to Maryland, not all parents have the luxury of leaving the home.

Bill Bowes, 84, bought a red convertible so Marie, who no longer can walk, can watch the sun set outside. After a lifetime of watching their seven children ski on the hill behind their home, Bill, whose memory still is razor sharp, and Marie now trust their children to care for them.

“In this particular case, I think it’s good that Heidi is here,” he said. “It works out beautifully.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sandy Nunnikhoven remembers “all the good things” about her grandmother, so looking at pictures is sometimes hard.

“You cry, but you have those memories,” said Sandy, who is watching her mother care for her grandmother, a relationship that leaves a lasting impression, Thiel said.

“These families that do this are teaching such a great thing to the generation below us or two below us,” she said. “It teaches them the value of life and the value of family.”


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