On a wintery January afternoon in 2001, I was sitting next to my mother at the kitchen table when she suffered a debilitating stroke, one that left her with right side paresis. She had been a healthy, very active 65 year old restaurant owner who lived for family and others. She walked three miles every morning, worked late into the night at the restaurant, and squeezed a yoga class into her day whenever she could. But she also suffered from hypertension or what many call high blood pressure.
She had been a completely independent woman who took care of everyone else. Now she had to allow herself to be taken care of. We all told each other that she’d recover—fully. We’d all look back on this time as a brief scare. Mom did recover, but not in the way we had hoped. Not in the way she had hoped either. She did get back her speech after weeks of intense speech therapy and learned how to walk again but with a cane and without the full use of her right side. She had to learn how to eat and write with her left hand despite being a righty for 65 years. The lives of every family member have been upended ever since. It’s been 18+ years.
Mom’s first words in the ICU were “pay mortgage.” It was at that moment we realized how unprepared we were. We had no idea what bills she needed to pay, or how she had paid them. We didn’t have access to her bank account. We didn’t know if she had a Will. What was a health care proxy? Did she have one? Where was it?
My father, a sculptor who lived in Vermont, came down to Long Island. My brother flew in from Colorado. With my husband, family and friends, we all came together to renovate my mother’s house, to accommodate Mom’s new needs. Making it functional and aesthetically pleasing was mandatory. We are Japanese, and both my parents are artists and chefs. Back in the 1970s, they opened the one of the first Japanese restaurants on Long Island, KuraBarn. Design, presentation, and taste were critical in the business’s success. My mother was accustomed to eating healthy. She had a hard time eating the hospital food. Friends and family took turns cooking for her, and we brought her three homecooked meals a day for the three months Mom was in the critical care ward and then the rehab hospital. 18+ years later, my mother still has no use of her right side and has since developed Parkinson’s. Day to day life is challenging for her—enormously so—but with 24-7 assistance, she does her best to keep on going, to find beauty in every day. My sister Kari is Mom’s head caregiver. She manages Mom’s 12 different medications, which are taken 4 times a day. Kari schedules visits to Mom’s 6 doctors and works out the week with our team of 8 aides, to be sure Mom is always protected. Sending our mom to a nursing home wasn’t and isn’t an option. Community Medicaid literally saved our family. Without it, we could not afford to care for mom without becoming depleted financially and emotionally. Figuring out how to pay for Mom’s needs wasn’t easy. My brother Mido moved back to Long Island to help with her care. My siblings and I had countless arguments. The stress became overwhelming.
With the help of our spouses, relatives, and friends we learned a great deal about elder care as we struggled to adapt to our new normal. We had to figure out what made Mom comfortable, what didn’t. We researched lawyers, various governmental programs and non-profit organizations that catered to the elderly. We bought and borrowed so much medical equipment that I think we could have open up our own medical supply store. Much of the equipment didn’t work or wasn’t designed well, and almost all of it was an eyesore.
I turned to Japan in search of goods that I thought would be more helpful, more pleasing to my mother—Japanese prize design, both functional and aesthetic. Japan is one of the fastest aging countries in the world. Caring for elders is an integral part of the culture.
When I visited Japanese medical supply stores and eldercare conferences, I was exposed to a whole new world of eldercare. The wheelchairs, canes, health aids I saw were superior to any of the their US counterparts. One of her favorite items is the hinged chopsticks that allow her to eat simply, cleanly. These small items changed my mother’s life. They made eating enjoyable again, as Mom wasn’t constantly struggling to get a hold of her food. The tiniest variations in design impacted Mom’s life enormously.
I decided that I had to share my knowledge to help the millions of people like Mom, the afflicted who continue to fight for their dignity as they battle enormous health challenges. And so Modern Aging was born.
Founder | CEO
I have been super fortunate to have worked in many different capacities over the years. As a documentary filmmaker (Wings of Defeat, Broken Harmony) and TV producer/director (HGTV, Animal Planet), I’ve traveled the world telling people’s stories. I’ve directed over 130 episodes of House Hunters International (yes, that’s a lot of airline miles!). I was the Executive Director of Asian CineVision, a NYC-based non-profit that nurtures emerging Asian American filmmakers. I ran the Asian American International Film Festival from 2001-2002. Prior to that, my life was at New York University organizing and developing and events, conferences, programs for the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute. Through it all, I have also been a daughter, sister, wife, mother and caregiver for my parents. I also make a mad gyoza having had to make it since I was 8 years old (growing up in an immigrant Asian entrepreneurial household is not for the faint of heart!).
Kari Morimoto Hoest
Sister | Partner
I’m the oldest of the three Morimoto kids. I used to be able to boss Risa and our brother Mido around but that power definitely faded as we aged! I went to school for massage therapy but these days my passions are in cooking and floral design. I also help manage Kurabarn, my parent’s restaurant (which is now owned by our cousin). My mother has definitely benefited from my shiatsu training and cooking! As our family’s primary caregiver, I have learned (with a lot of trial and error) the best way to manage mom’s care. Each family and individual have their own unique experiences, but hopefully we can help you to develop your own system and plan so that everyone can live a more fulfilling, independent life.
Director of Research & Content Creation
I’ve been committed to the topics of caregiving, death, and dignity in aging since my mid-20’s, when I moved home for two years to take care of my mother. She eventually died of complications from cancer. This experience inspired my graduate work in theology at Oxford University and Union Theological Seminary, where I wrote my master’s thesis on death. I proposed a definition of death that would be acceptable to both medical and religious communities. Since then, I’ve been teaching online college courses in critical thinking. Now, I’m working with Risa to develop the curriculum for Modern Aging while finishing a certificate in e-Learning Design and Development at San Francisco State University. I’m also working with my brother to plan the next stage of life for our father, who just turned 80 years young.