When my daughter was younger, she said she loved me so much that when I was old she’d get a wheelchair and push me wherever I wanted to go. Her sister said she’d push me off a cliff. I was in my early thirties when this conversation took place and since then I’ve wondered who will take care of me if I become old and infirm.
As part of my nursing education, I spent a fair amount of time in nursing homes. Afterwards, as a new nurse, I worked in hospitals. Both of these experiences convinced me that the majority of the elderly were frail, sickly, and unable to live on their own. It depressed me.
In the nursing home, the patients with dementia were the most labor intensive. One birdlike woman practically lived at the nurse’s station. She’d yell to each passing staff member or visitor, “Hey, lady. Hey, lady. Get me out of here. I have to go home.” Her idea of home was the home of her childhood and she’d often continue with, “my father will be mad at me. I’m late. Get me out of here.” Sometimes I’d want to loosen her restraint and take her to this home that was still alive in her memory. Other times I’d sneak around so she couldn’t see me and ask me to help her. What I remember most is that no one ever visited her.
In the hospital, dying patients needed the most resources. Mouth care, turning and positioning, constantly assessing their level of comfort and providing medication were all involved in “aggressive comfort care” as opposed to “comfort care only.” We knew we were fighting a losing battle, yet wanted to be proactive in preventing further complications and keeping the patient pain free. Sometimes family members would stand vigil, many times the nurses were the only silent witnesses to the winding down of a life.
It wasn’t until I worked in outpatient care that I realized many older patients were self-sufficient, active in their communities, and living at home without assistance. They didn’t need the services of a nursing home and, if they were lucky, the end of their lives happened in their home rather than in a hospital or ambulance. It gave me hope.
As my parents inch past seventy-five, I’ve also realized how many of the elderly live in their own homes and struggle to maintain their dignity while dealing with limited resources. There comes a time when you realize mom or dad isn’t able to manage their own life as they once were. I think that realization, for most children, is slow in coming and it takes even more time before the children try to step in and help.
Why is that? I think on some level we’re ashamed to acknowledge our parent’s physical problems. Intellectually, I understand that the elderly have a decreased sense of smell, touch, vision, hearing and taste. They may not notice the smell of spoiled meat, not see the stains on the dishes they’ve washed, not be aware of the loudness of the television while they’re talking on the phone, and eat the same food day in and day out. Their mobility is limited due to loss of muscle, disuse, and degenerative diseases like arthritis. Their bowels don’t function as regularly as before. Their skin is easily damaged and slow to repair.
And most of us are busy, damn it. We have children graduating from college or getting married or having their own babies while we try to pay off parent PLUS loans, boost our 401k’s, keep our marriages or relationships strong and maybe even find time to fulfill our own dreams. All this is going on while our parents start a slow decline and insist they can take care of themselves. They don’t want to be a bother.
So where do we put our time and effort? Into the problems we can fix. Babysitting grandchildren, advancing our careers, spending romantic time with our significant others, doing the things we always meant to do that we now have the time for. And the more our parents say they’re fine, we shouldn’t bother, it’s no big deal, the easier it is for us to defer to their fine judgement and leave them to their own devices. I mean, really, they’re our parents.
Until the day we go over to their house and realize that they aren’t doing okay. They need our help. All of the things they did for us and taught us to do for ourselves have come full circle. They need help to wash themselves up and keep themselves clean. They need someone to monitor their meals and make sure they’re eating enough high quality food. They need someone to dry them off and look for signs of skin breakdown and intervene early. They need someone to clean their house, check the outdates on their food, and drive them to appointments. Much as they helped us to transition from dependent child to independent adult, we must now support them as they transition from independent adult to dependent parent. It’s not fun.
And for me, and I feel shame as I write this but I suspect others feel as I do, it is hard. It is hard to remind a parent to shower, to go to the bathroom, to wear a depends pad, to take their medications. It is hard because we now become the parents of the person who parented us. It is hard because we know deep down inside that our parents would never want us to see them as weak and in need of help so we must thrust ourselves into their lives and do it matter of factly and decisively. And we must somehow reconcile the parent of our minds, the strong, vibrant, healthy person we remember, with the person they have become from no fault of their own other than the passing of the years. And then we must love them and help them, all the while protecting their dignity and sense of self.
It’s a damn hard dance to do.
But still, I see adult children who do it every day. They stand by their mothers and fathers in the most intimate and embarrassing situations with a grace that doesn’t come from socioeconomic status or education. It doesn’t come from religious guilt or dreams of inheritance. It doesn’t come from a sense of obligation or duty or even payback. It comes from love.
And every time I see an adult child performing the most personal care for their parents with a smile and the attitude that it’s not a big deal, I am humbled. The question isn’t who will take care of us when we age, it is how we can do the right thing for the people who have done so much for us
Pat, August 20, 2011 – Curb (Photo credit: pat00139)