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Sitting at the breakfast table where the morning sun streams in, Dorothy Tucker winces as the brush tugs at her hair. Her daughter, Barbara Tucker Parker, strokes more gently, drawing her mother's long white ponytail through an elastic band. "Okay, is it better?" she says.
"Yes," says Tucker, 87, a vague look in her blue eyes.
This is how their day begins. When Tucker wakes and emerges from her bedroom, her daughter sets out her morning pills and brings her shredded-wheat cereal with 2 percent milk and three prunes. She kneels and pulls compression stockings over her mother's legs to keep them from swelling.
Each day, as Tucker Parker performs these rituals, she reminds herself to focus on what her mother can still do. She can put in her false teeth by herself, if they are set out in front of her. She can put on her clothes, if they are laid out.
But there is plenty of "can't" since a 2009 stroke left Tucker with dementia. Once a talkative, vibrant woman, she can't hold a thought long enough to read a book or carry on a meaningful conversation. She can't be left alone, for fear she will walk out the door and disappear.
So Tucker lives with her oldest daughter, one of millions of working Americans who also take care of an aging parent.
The day unfolds in her house as it does in a growing number of homes across the country. A combination of nurse and nanny, Tucker Parker guides her mother through a world she can no longer navigate alone.
The petite, high-energy Tucker Parker is a costume designer for American University's department of performing arts. She lives with her husband in a two-story house in University Park, Md., where they raised two children, now in their early 20s.
The couple used to run 10k races together and go for long bike rides. They had planned to spend this period of their lives doing some traveling. But after the stroke, Tucker Parker's mother is not the same woman she remembers having five books going at once and playing the piano into the night. Seeing her now, Tucker Parker said, "it's horrifyingly sad."
It's also stressful. At a time when she and her husband thought they'd be close to having an empty nest, the nest is full again.
Their 24-year-old daughter, who lives on her own, occasionally spends a night with her grandmother if her parents need to leave town. Their 21-year-old son, who still lives at home, helps, too.
"But it's ultimately my job," Tucker Parker says. "My husband is really good with her, but I can't abandon her to him. . . . It's not his job to watch her; it's my job. I've taken it on, and she's my mother."
So she incorporates her mother into her day. On Tuesday nights, the mother sits quietly while the daughter rehearses with a local choir. Three days a week, the daughter drives the mother to an adult day program at Iona Senior Services, a D.C. nonprofit organization that provides her with art therapy and fitness activities. Staff members there have taught Tucker Parker caregiving techniques, little things that help such as giving her five crayons instead of 20, so she doesn't become overwhelmed.
Iona costs up to $110 a day, however, and although Tucker's Social Security check helps pay for some of it, her daughter can't afford to send her daily. So two days a week, mother accompanies daughter to the costume shop and sits amid the sewing machines and half-sewn capes as college students come by for fittings.
Tucker was always artistic. In her daughter's shop, she is surrounded by work she did years ago: a wooden table she painted a deep red with gold trim; a fanciful rhinestone-studded crown she made for a character in a play. On the walls are her paintings — outdoor scenes with flowers and sky that she thought would keep her daughter from feeling cooped up.
Tucker still likes to be helpful, so her daughter gives her tasks — sorting buttons, ripping seams and, recently, inserting metal stays into corsets for a production of "The Alchemist." It makes her happy, her daughter says, "when she can do this thing and she feels a pride."
Tucker Parker and her husband don't take vacations — it's too hard to find someone they can trust to care for her mother. They don't even go to a movie unless they can take her, too.
The relentlessness of the routine can feel wearing. Bathing Tucker involves hoisting her up a flight of stairs and persuading her to be scrubbed in the tub. She sometimes resists.
"One day she'll be fine and another day you'll go in and she's sitting there surrounded by all her clothes, and she'll take every single sock out" of her drawer, Tucker Parker said. "It's like a child you have to keep doing for because they don't get older to do for themselves."
Plenty of people place their relatives in an assisted-living facility, but Tucker Parker does not want to do that. "She knows my name, she calls my name," she said. "Where can I put her that's better than this? Who's going to take care of her better than me? Nobody."
Tucker Parker knows she has it better than many other caregivers, whose workplaces don't allow for dependents to tag along or who must contend with dementia-related aggression or anger. "She is grateful for it; she does say thank you," she said of her mother.
And caregiving has brought the whole family closer together, said her husband, Art Parker.
"We work pretty hard to spell each other and get some assistance from our children," he said. "I think it's probably made us a little stronger."
There are also moments of grace. Mother and daughter like to sing along with Sirius radio's Elvis station. And they have made a game of comparing the newspaper's weather forecast with what they see out the window.
"Flurries," Tucker Parker reads from the paper.
The two look outside, where the sun is brightly shining, and her mother giggles.
"There are people who focus on it being a lot of work," Tucker Parker said. "It's work, but there's also a lot of fun involved, and you have to kind of give, to get it."
One day, Tucker Parker says, she will feel lucky to have had her mother so close by. Until then, the routine repeats itself, from morning until the end of the day. At night, there are more pills. And then she squeezes toothpaste onto her mother's toothbrush, makes sure she takes out her teeth after cleaning them and tucks her into bed.
Photos by Nikki Kahn.