Calgary·First Person

3 broken ribs took down my mother. They almost took me down, too

When her strong, stoic mother falls backward and breaks her ribs, Angeles Espinaco-Virseda finds herself thrust into additional roles of nurse and caregiver. It's left her with questions.

The Canadian population is aging. I wonder, how will caregivers manage?

Angeles Espinaco-Virseda tries to keep her parents safe but connected by sharing a meal over Zoom. (Karsten Buhler-Espinaco)

This First Person column is written by Angeles Espinaco-Virseda, who cares for her parents in Edmonton. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

I recall life last October as though I am still living it. Morning: a quick breakfast, then drive my son across town to school (half an hour), come back (half an hour), and then, masked, go straight to check on my mom. 

Her three broken ribs are the outcome of a backward fall onto a bucket. Three broken ribs have taken down a woman with a stamina and stoicism forged by war, hunger and trauma. 

Every morning, I tend to my mother's needs, both physical and emotional. Some of her care requires intimate contact. For all of her needs, I am glad that I am able to help her. I know that she would feel uneasy and even vulnerable if a stranger — an outside caregiver — were to care for her. She has given me so much. Now, I want to give back to her. She deserves her privacy and dignity.

Still, my sudden, new role is challenging.

Three broken ribs cause my mother to cry out in agony and demand painkillers. Her suffering leaves me in shock. Who is this woman? Never in my life, not in 55 years, have I heard her unrestrained voice reveal the depth of her physical pain. Never before has my mother asked for painkillers. Normally, I have to coerce her to take Tylenol, but now.… Now, I give her Oxycontin. Down they go. She slumps back, exhausted. 

"Where is my mother?" I wonder. "Can this woman really be my mother?"

Angeles Espinaco-Virseda with her mother Antje Espinaco-Virseda, Sr., outside of their home in Edmonton. (Karsten Buhler-Espinaco)

Swiftly, I take her weight in my arms and I pull her torso upright in bed, gently turn her body by using her legs as though I was moving the arms of a clock, and then help her place her feet on the floor to stand. That's half an hour. I have half an hour to quickly dress her, comb her hair, and help her to the dining room, where I will quickly scramble her eggs with onions and red peppers (my own touch, to brighten up her meal), butter and heat a bran muffin, peel her an orange and make her tea. 

While she is eating, I feed the cats and prepare her a chair in the living room, with a large wedge pillow to support her back, a foot stool to support her fused knee. A makeshift table holds blankets, the television remote control and a glass of water.

Everything is in place. I check on her one last time and then rush out the door. In half an hour, I have to start my paid work as a student writing advisor through the university. Thank goodness for COVID. Thank goodness for remote workplaces. Thank goodness her ribs will eventually heal. If it weren't for this and if I didn't live next door, how would I manage?

My story is not unique; actually, it is quite common.

According to Statistics Canada, even before COVID, a quarter of Canadians 15 years old or older provided care for family or friends. Undoubtedly, as the Canadian population ages, this number will grow. I wonder, how will others manage?

Antje Espinaco-Virseda, Sr. drinks tea with her family after recovering from her broken ribs. Antje is author Angeles Espinaco-Virseda's mother. (Karsten Buhler-Espinaco)

I believe people needing long-term care are often happiest and most comfortable in their own homes. If I were in their situation, I know I certainly would be. Yet, when I hear that the Alberta government wants to shift to more care in the community in their long-term care strategy, I worry. I look at what I've had to deal with and think: Will there be enough support for people to do this over the long term?

After work, I will drive half an hour across town to pick up my son from school. I don't want him to get COVID on the bus and give it to his grandmother — that would be my breaking point. Then I will have half an hour to straighten the house, then make supper (with luck, one hour). 

After I put dinner on the table, I will prepare two plates to take next door to my parents — my father is also starting to show his age — and my son will set up Google Meet on the laptop so we can safely have dinner with them. Damn COVID. Damn social isolation.

If I hurry, I can quickly clean up the dinner dishes, make lunches and then watch TV for an hour before I go back next door to medicate and undress mom, put on her pyjamas, lower her into bed and leave her extra medications ready at her bedside.

In between, others might call wanting an update on mom's condition. Oh, yes, and I need to renew mom's prescription for painkillers and go to the store and buy her Gravol. I better do that first. I also need to make a new chart to keep track of which medications she has taken at what time, and I need to chop onions and peppers for her scrambled eggs. That saves time in the morning. 

My mom loves eggs and she loves mornings. I hate eggs. I hate breakfast. I hate mornings.

This month, the CBC team in Alberta focusing on family caregivers and the challenge Alberta faces reforming care for the frail and elderly. Visit to read more.

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Angeles Espinaco-Virseda has a Ph.D. in history and works as a historian and university writing advisor. She lives in Edmonton.