Caregiver of 95-year-old dad shares challenges, rewards

Nurse, wife and mother has advocated for elderly relatives for as long as she can remember

caregiver heart blogDonna Ruemenapp knows a lot about caregiving. She’s been taking care of adult family members — including her aunt, uncle, mother and father — for as far back as she can remember. And her profession as a nurse, as well as her role as a wife and mother of three boys, makes her caregiver credentials even more impressive.

Despite the challenges that caring for others has presented over the years, Donna says she wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything. Today, as the main caregiver for her 95-year-old father, Joe Solak, Donna is grateful to be able to enjoy his company at a time when she knows others have lost both parents.

Becoming an advocate

Donna and Joe blog

Donna celebrates Valentine’s Day 2015 with her father, Joe Solak.

But she admits there are days when the stress takes its toll. In addition to providing meals and transportation as well as managing his medication, Donna is also a staunch advocate for her father’s health, most recently when his aortic stenosis condition took a turn for the worse. When doctors weren’t willing to treat the unusually active 95-year-old due to his age, Donna was convinced there had to be something to relieve his worsening symptoms.

That’s when she arranged to have him visit U-M, where he was assessed and deemed a candidate for a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) procedure, which was successfully performed in July 2014. Soon after, he was once again working out in a swimming pool and socializing with family and friends.

Donna says the elderly need advocates for their health, despite the extra work involved. “I’m fortunate that I can help him,” she says, noting that her part-time work position was necessitated by caregiving responsibilities. “Caregiving is hard work, but it’s a blessing and a gift. I can’t imagine not doing what I’ve been doing for all these years.”

Accepting support

Donna believes “the key is to have someone in your life to be supportive if you run short on time or energy.” Her husband is that person for her. “I don’t think I could do it without his support,” she says. She also has others to rely on, including “two brothers who live out of state but are here in a heartbeat to help out when able and a wonderful friend who looks in on my dad on the days that I work.”

Donna’s three boys have seen the sacrifices she and her husband have made for their grandparents and hope they understand the importance of caring for others. Donna cites the 42 million Americans who are currently caregivers in this “sandwich” generation. “They’re caring for elderly parents and children all at once, and it’s difficult. But God gives you the strength to do what you need to do,” she says, noting that it’s important to learn to let go when others are there to help you. Over the years, she says, “I’m finally learning to let go.”

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The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.