Steve Lopez: Work, school, caregiving. Multiple generations honor a family member while going about their lives

Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

When Mariella Rojas goes into her mother's bedroom each morning, she doesn't know whether 81-year-old Rosa Angelica Saldana will recognize her.

"Sometimes she'll say, 'Mariella,' and she'll caress my hand," the pre-K teacher says. "Or sometimes she's just staring at me and looks spaced out."

Her mother, once vibrant and industrious, lived on her own until her world went out of focus about seven years ago. Mariella panicked when she learned Saldana hadn't returned from an errand; eventually, she found her in a bank, where "she looked so lost." Another time, her mother got off a bus at her scheduled stop but couldn't remember how to get home from there.

Mariella and her family briefly considered moving Saldana to a nursing facility, but the cost at the time, starting at $5,000 a month, was unaffordable. And Mariella says she couldn't imagine leaving her mother with strangers and worrying about the quality of her care.

Mariella asked her husband, Julio, if it would be OK for her mother to move in with them.

He said yes. His parents were cared for by family in Argentina after he moved to the United States.


For the last seven years, Saldana, whose cognitive impairment has steadily declined, has lived in a three-bedroom Northridge apartment with Mariella, Julio, their daughter Paola, 19, and son Max, 14. The teens, who used to have their own bedrooms, began sharing one to make room for their grandmother.

"It's challenging," Julio told me after a day of work at a metal casting factory. He was seated at the dining room table across from his mother-in-law, who dug into a spaghetti dinner. "But we needed to help, and we did it."

As the age wave gathers force in one of the great demographic shifts of our time, a small percentage of people will be able to afford 24-7 in-home care for loved ones, and some will go broke trying. Others will ship family members off to nursing homes or senior villages, but that's a budget buster too.

Mariella calls her situation an arrangement born of cultural preference — "I'm Latina" — and financial need. But given projected shortages of trained help and the cost of professional care, this model is becoming more common in a nation of unpaid caregivers who are learning on the job, even as they juggle work and other family responsibilities.


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