'I'm always coming home to someone I love'

Jackson attorney leaves job to care for aging parents

By Brett DeGroff

Legal News

Karen Lewthwaite spent decades helping folks in Jackson County. As an attorney at Legal Services of South Central Michigan, Lewthwaite oversaw a busy office that advocated for victims of domestic violence, people facing home foreclosure and others.

Lewthwaite left Legal Services more than a year ago. She doesn't practice law any more, and spends half the year in California. But, in a way, not much has changed. Lewthwaite is still busy, and she is still helping people.

"I don't call it being retired," Lewthwaite said. "It's physically and emotionally very hard."

Lewthwaite left her job to care for her aging parents, Gordon and Lydia Lewthwaite. Gordon suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes years ago, leaving him partially dependant on Lydia. When Lydia was diagnosed with dementia, it became clear the couple would need help.

"As a Legal Services attorney, I had done a lot of work with families confronting this issue who didn't know where to turn," Lewthwaite said. "I knew what some of the alternatives were, and I didn't want them for my parents.

"There are good nursing homes, and the social aspect of a nursing home can be a real blessing. But my parents are so mentally alert and did so well in their home environment I didn't want that to be taken away from them."

So Lewthwaite spends every other month caring for her parents in their home. She packs a bag, her husband drops her at the airport, and she jets off to Los Angeles.

At first, there were a lot of neglected matters to take care of.

Gordon had always worked while Lydia took care of the home, which included paying bills and taxes. As Lydia's dementia set in over time, and Gordon's abilities were diminished by strokes, things started to slip. Lewthwaite said that by the time she arrived and started going through their papers, there was "literally five years of tax messes to clean up." So, Lewthwaite laid claim to a corner of her parents' study and went to work. The backlog is cleared up, but every time she arrives, Lewthwaite still has a month's worth of bills and other mail to deal with.

When Lewthwaite first arrived, Gordon's health had also been steadily slipping for some time and he was placed on hospice care. However, after several trips, Gordon had rebounded, is off hospice, and is working from home.

"I think a lot of it had to do with the intellectual stimulation of having a more lively person in the house," Lewthwaite said. "It's been one of the real unexpected benefits of the whole thing."

Gordon is an emeritus professor of geography at California State University, Northridge. She said Gordon may not be as sharp as he was before his strokes and heart attacks, but that is a pretty high bar.

"He's limited," she said. "He can't read as fast. His eyes are damaged. He started out as a brilliant guy and he is still really, really smart.

With her parents' finances and Gordon's health improved, a lot of Lewthwaite's time is spent on small tasks. Replacing hearing aid batteries for Lydia, or finding the one book Gordon needs out of the stacks and stacks he has accumulated over the years. At the end of every month, Lewthwaite turns the responsibility of caring for her parents over to her sister, who lives in the area, and Lewthwaite heads home to Jackson for a month.

"It's physically tougher than I expected," she said. "With the time change there is an adjustment every trip.

"It's emotionally tough too, because I'm always leaving someone I love."

Back in Jackson, Lewthwaite's husband, Jerry Schrotenboer, keeps in touch with regular phone calls. He eats meals Lewthwaite prepares and freezes for when she is away. Schrotenboer, Jackson County's Chief Appellate Prosecutor, talks law with Lewthwaite when they are together and when they are apart.

"I miss my work," Lewthwaite said. "I'm a lawyer who likes the law. It's nice to still be able to talk about cases."

Schrotenboer has been completely behind Lewthwaite's decision. Lewthwaite said she couldn't undertake the endeavor without his support and thinks that, in other families, having a spouse who understands and supports such a decision would be a major obstacle. But every month Schrotenboer is back at that airport to pick up his wife.

"One of the very sweet things about all of this is Jerry's reaction," Lewthwaite said. "He is a very reserved man. But when he sees me at the airport his face just cracks open in a wide smile."

"That's the nice thing too. I'm always coming home to someone I love."

Published: Mon, Aug 6, 2012

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