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Finding joy in sadness: Mason City woman is a caregiver for mother, daughter, sister

MASON CITY | Being a caregiver for one person can be an emotionally and physically draining full-time job.

Odessa Pham, 42, of Mason City serves as a caregiver for her mother and daughter while helping her sister who has special needs.

“There’s joy behind it too,” Pham said. “At least my parents can spend the time with their grandchildren. It’s sad that the younger children didn't really get to see her when she was with it."

Pham’s mother, Kozette Stange, 63, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in February 2016.

“She was the matriarch of the family and she took care of everyone," Pham said. 

Stange ran a business and played piano among other things throughout her life. Stange and her husband, Larry, Pham’s father, adopted two special needs children and raised five children total. 

Pham’s adopted sister, Abebi, lives at One Vision in Clear Lake.

“She’s such a blessing to us,” Pham said. “She’s such a sweet spirit.”


Odessa Pham, left, with her sister, Abebi, who lives at One Vision in Clear Lake. 

Pham said she noticed issues with her mother long before the diagnosis.

“Electricity and water got shut off; she was forgetting to pay bills," she said. "She kept the household running for 45 years.”

Pham’s parents lost their house due to forgotten taxes and moved in with Pham and her family.

“When Dad and Mom moved in it was with my husband, our 4 kids and myself,” she said. “Full house!”

After her mom began forgetting to take pills or not taking the right doses, Pham took her to Mayo, where she was finally able to get some answers. 

“It was heartbreaking,” she said of the diagnosis. “I was hoping it was something we could control with medication or something. It was like a kick -- it was horrible.”

Since Stange’s diagnosis, Pham has noticed a decline in her memory. 

“Having conversations is impossible,” Pham said. “Watching the decline is really hard, thinking of how she used to be.”

Pham said Stange would organize everything, every birthday and family event. Now, she can’t remember.

The frustration takes a toll on Stange.

“It’s weird to have to tell my mom to ‘behave yourself,’” she said. “I still love her and respect her.”

Love and respect are two musts for a caregiver, according to Pham.

“Parents still need respect and conditional love,” she said. “She worked so hard to take care of me all those years - it’s only right to take care of her. It’s heartbreaking for Dad.”

Courtesy Odessa Pham 

Kozette Stange with her daughter, Abebi. 

Pham has tried to understand what caused the early onset of Alzheimer's. She said she believes it's a combination of several things -- high blood pressure and stress. 

Pham said her husband Michael’s support is incredible.

“Whenever Mom falls he us the one who helps her get up,” she said. He is a good husband.”

Pham has received help and resources from Elderbridge and DHS. She joined a support group at Trinity Lutheran, which she said has been helpful. 

“These other people are going through the same thing,” Pham said. “I don’t think I would be able to handle everything if I didn’t have God. I probably would have cracked a long time ago.”

Pham said her faith keeps her grounded.

“Jesus is the one who has been helping me through this,” she said.

Pham and her family attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Mason City, and she says her church family there has been supportive. 

“They give me that needed spiritual refill, recharge every week,” she said.

Pham drives a bus for Mason City Schools, and her weeks can get busy, with shuffling her mom and daughter to doctor's appointments. 

Her teenage daughter was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at about 8-years-old.

Names & News in North Iowa business for Nov. 25

With her daughter, she noted the lack of mental health care for children in North Iowa.

“We were getting the help we needed at a doctor’s office but they all moved,” she said.

She noted that her daughter was experiencing hallucinations, and at one point, doctors in the ER wanted to send her to Des Moines. 

“They don’t have an area to takes care of kids mental health issues,” Pham said.

Counselors and teachers at Mason City Schools have been incredibly supportive, she said. 

Pham has been in contact with IOOF to place her mom in a memory care unit in the future. 

To those who are caregivers or who may become a caregiver, Pham said it's important to learn patience.

“Mom accepted the fact that she’s declining but it’s hard on her,” she said. “Listen to what the person is saying. Don't try to block it out. Try to understand.”

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Steve King: U.S. could accept more temporary migrant workers if they post a bond

SIOUX CITY | Building a border wall at the United States' southern border with Mexico remains at the forefront of Rep. Steve King's immigration enforcement efforts, but the Republican congressman said he's open to letting more migrant workers enter the country under the right conditions.

Addressing a group of Sioux City business leaders, King said he has shared a plan with President Trump that would allow non-citizens to temporarily work in the U.S. by posting a bond, similar to the bail bond system in criminal courts.

“The employer would hire some broker for that labor, and through that process, you could require the temporary laborer to post a bond – the employer would end up posting it – and then when they go home that bond is released," King told the Sioux City Rotary Club.

King referenced his proposal, which had been introduced in the House as HR6089, or the E-bonding for Immigration Integrity Act of 2018, in response to a question from a Rotary member who suggested allowing more labor to cross the border to help ease a worker shortage faced by many local employers looking to grow their businesses. The unemployment rate in metro Sioux City dropped to 2 percent in October.

King, whose sons run a western Iowa earth moving company that he and his wife started, said the family business faces many of the same labor challenges. But the congressman said he is committed to the "rule of law" and remains opposed to a comprehensive immigration overhaul, favored by many politicians, that would give undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a path to citizenship.

Migrant workers provide a crucial supply of labor for the U.S. agriculture industry, with some estimating that nearly half the laborers are undocumented. Employers have long lobbied for ways to bring in more guest workers; legislators have disagreed on the best way to reform the current programs.

King said many guest workers and other non-citizens issued temporary visas, including students and tourists, overstay their permission to be in the U.S. More than 90 percent fail to show up for immigration court hearings, up from the low 80s during the George W. Bush administration, he said.

The potential loss of a significant cash bond would significantly deter visa overstays. If the bond was forfeited, it would be used by the Department of Homeland Security to administer enforcement programs. King's proposal would call for a bond from $3,000 to $10,000 per worker, his congressional office later explained.

"If you bring in temporary labor, that means they are supposed to go back home again ... I want to make people accountable," the 4th District congressman told the Rotarians during their lunch at M's on Fourth.

King's appearance came the day before the House and Senate return to Washington. After midterm elections that put Democrats in control of the House in January, the stakes have increased in a year-end spending battle. A centerpiece of the partisan fight will be funding for Trump's proposed border wall for the 2019 fiscal year, which began October 1.

King, whose outspoken anti-immigration views have put him in the national spotlight, has been a strong proponent of the wall. He even displays a scale model of the barrier in his House office.

In the lame duck session, King said he hopes the House and Senate also strike a deal on a new farm bill and international trade deals, and a new budget to avoid a shutdown before the federal government runs out of money on Dec. 7.

Three weeks ago, King narrowly won his ninth term, by 3 percent over J.D. Scholten, a Democrat from Sioux City. He won while fending off criticism for his support of a white nationalist candidate for Toronto mayor and meeting with a member of an Austrian political party with historic ties to the Nazi Party.

"The good news is the election is over ... That's all I am going to say about that," he told the audience.

In the election, Democrats picked up at least 39 House seats, with one race still too close to call.

King said he presumes that when Republicans go into the minority, the new House speaker will be Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, whom King said will be the "new sheriff in town." He predicted there will "one or more impeachment efforts" of Trump by Democratic leaders, adding, "I am not looking forward to that battle."

Three people stood outside M's on Fourth in silent protest of King. Among the signs they held were wordings of "Never too cold to resist," on a day when the temperature strained to reach the freezing mark. During his 30-minute talk, King answered five questions from Rotarians. He left the venue without taking questions from local reporters.

CHRIS ZOELLER The Globe Gazette 

U.S. Rep. Steve King speaks to a room full of supporters at a campaign stop at the Cerro Gordo County GOP office in Mason City in November 2018.