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Take 5: Stone Phillips on his aging parents and 'Moving Grace,' a documentary about their care

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Since 1965, Vic and Grace Phillips made their home in Ballwin. There, they raised three children, including son and broadcast journalist, Stone Phillips.

Today, the Phillips live in a retirement community in North Carolina, and the years, conversations and choices it took to get them there are documented in “Moving with Grace,” a new documentary filmed and produced by Phillips.

“In many ways, this is kind of a love letter to St. Louis because my parents love St. Louis, and it’s a love story for them, too,” he said. “That’s what this is I think more than anything else. Mom, Dad, Vic and Grace, pulling together and supporting each other through this thing.”

The Nine Network of Public Media will present the broadcast premiere of the film at 7 p.m. May 7, with a repeat airing at 6 p.m. May 12.

Phillips talked about the film, his parents and the difficulties they all faced in the process of “Moving with Grace.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Beacon: You and your siblings were raised in Ballwin and have all lived away from St. Louis for quite some time. In 2007, your parents moved into a retirement community. Can you start by talking about your own experience seeing your parents leave their home as they began to face some of the difficulties of aging?

Phillips: It was a very difficult decision to leave the home they built. They picked the lot in 1965 and built the home in Claymont in Ballwin and lived there from 1965 until 2007. It was difficult.

My father, who is a retired chemical engineer from Monsanto, is the practical, forward-looking thinker in that couple. I think he appreciated that a move needed to be made.

We were concerned about my dad going up and down the stairs to the basement, where the washer and dryer were. We were concerned about the couple of steps going from the house to the garage. We were in the process of age-proofing the home, thinking about where we were going to relocate the washer and dryer upstairs, all of those very practical kind of considerations that we all have when our parents are aging and we’re thinking about their health and safety, so it was difficult.

My mom did not want to leave. She resisted it for a long time. That process was about starting the discussions very early, starting to think about it, talk about it, starting to visit some of the retirement communities in the St. Louis area. And with time, we eventually were able to do it.

We told mom that we would hold on to the house for awhile, and if she really didn’t like it, she could come back. If you know my mom, she’s the kind of person that once she makes a move, she’s very positive-minded . So once she made it, she fell in love with Friendship Village and decided that there was no going back. She prospered, as did my father. It turned out to be a very happy move, even as difficult as it was.

So you and your siblings spent a year trying to help your mom and dad from a distance. What were the toughest things about that year, both for you and your parents?

Phillips: It was a few years. I would say we spent the better part of a year really discussing that we needed to move them closer to one of us.

My sister, who is a doctor in North Carolina, felt adamant that she wanted mom and dad close to her. She felt very good about her situation down there. She’d be able to arrange for their care.

The few years they were (at Friendship Village included health issues). My father, who is a World War II vet and has a paralyzed right arm, has to catheterize himself several times a day because of a bladder issue, and he was getting frequent infections. His fever would spike, and he’d have to be hospitalized. When you’re 88, 89, 90 years old, all of those things were a concern.

I would get on a plane from New York and my sister would get on a plane from North Carolina and on very short notice get to St. Louis. You just never knew when one of these infections or one of these heart episodes was going to be the beginning of the end.

Discussions about moving them to North Carolina mirrored the process of moving them out of their house. My father saw the wisdom, the necessity of moving, even though he didn’t look forward to it and he hated to leave his friends and his community in St. Louis. Mom was very resistant, would fluctuate back and forth. And especially as her dementia increased, she would forget the discussions that we had. 

Caring for aging parents is something most baby boomers now have to face. What was it about your personal experience that made you want to document and share it with others?

Phillips: That’s precisely why I wanted to do it. As I talk with friends about what was happening with my family and my parents, everyone had a similar story, everyone was interested and I was interested in their stories. This is one of those time of life issues.

With our aging parents, we are taking over management of their lives. It’s become an almost universal story and challenge. I just thought that maybe by documenting the story, my parent’s story, and showing the trials, the difficulties and the success ... maybe by sharing it, it would be helpful to others.

Through your own experiences and your reporting on this documentary, what do you think needs to happen, at policy levels and at personal levels among families, to help people navigate the maze of caring for their aging parents?

Phillips: The policy issues I don’t really get into that much in this documentary. This is a very personal story. I think what I came away with is these are family decisions that have to be made.

You have to be able to consider not only your aging parents, but also your own life. It’s not easy to become a caregiver for an aging parent. You have to take into consideration what works for the caregiver as well as the aging parent.

It’s hard to begin to take control over an aging parent’s life, it’s emotionally difficlut, it’s a role reversal -- there is a kind of unsettling, uncomfortable feeling about it.

I came away feeling  that it’s really important to communicate and to talk to my mom, particularly and let her know that even though we were making this decision that she didn’t want to do, that we still cared about hearing how she felt, what she wanted to say about it, hearing her feelings. So even though we weren’t honoring her wishes, we were honoring her feelings. I think that really helped.

How are both your father and mother doing now? 

Phillips: They’re doing well. They moved to North Carolina when they were still living independently, even though my mother’s dementia was increasing. Now they’ve moved into assisted living, they need the additional care.

My mother’s dementia has progressed. She was diagnosed with late-onset Alzheimers, and she is moderate-to-severe. She is as delightful and outgoing and positive as she has ever been, but her memory comes and goes.

One of the key factors in successful aging is the social component and it is not an easy decision to uproot parents from a community and the friends they love, and it’s not something that you do lightly.

I still feel the tug of their missing their friends, especially my father. It was a difficult transition for him. There was a point that he said, I think if I had to do this over again, I wouldn’t do it.

The outcomes of these things are unpredictable, but I think if you can talk about it, continue to talk about it and just support one another as much as you can, you have a better chance of a better outcome.

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