So many people I know are dealing with the difficult and challenging aspect of aging parents. It’s incredibly difficult. Last year, my brother-in-law’s father died after a short, protracted battle with cancer. His Mom began to fail soon after with another form of cancer, and is now in hospice. He and my sister purposely chose to live far away from all parental units – BIL is from Toronto, and my Mother lives in Cleveland. Chicago wasn’t far enough, so after a few years there, they moved to Wisconsin – further away, but not so far they can never visit. Just far enough that visiting is a very long and difficult journey.
My own in-laws are also in failing health. Both have a number of illnesses, including early Alzheimer’s, and my father-in-law’s ticker is weak after a major heart attack years ago – his pacemaker needs adjusted but they don’t think he would survive the procedure; his kidneys are also failing. After being evicted from their home a couple of years ago, they moved into a crappy little apartment. Now unable to continue living on their own, but with no money to place them in assisted living, they have been moved to my sister-in-law’s; she and her husband live in an expansive house in the country near Solon. On a smaller scale, that’s just far enough to make the trip a difficult journey, but not so far we can’t visit.
My father died when I was 21. There was no long, protracted illness. He had a heart attack and then four months later, while still adjusting to a life without a constant flow of hot dogs, cigarettes and coffee with heavy cream, a stroke. My Mother has always been the hardier one, busting out of small-town life and moving to the “big city” of Cleveland, where she worked for years at Case Western, saved her money one penny at a time, and finally bought a small house in Lakewood. She’s always been independent and never needed a man in her life after she divorced my Dad, and I have admired her courage and resolve.
The women in my family on both sides have been tough. My father’s mother lived to be 101 years old, surviving four heart attacks and outliving several of her children. My maternal grandmother lived into her early 90s, and was still on her feet shopping at Goodwill for three and four hours at a stretch well into her 80s. My own mother’s hardiness has been more limited. Once she quit working, her scaled back lifestyle slowed her considerably, and her quickly advancing arthritis began to limit her more and more. At 71, her arthritis is so bad now my sister and have begun to discuss ways to get her some more regular care; she can no longer capably take care of her house, the “good days” are fewer and farther between, and though she still goes to Silver Sneakers several times a week, it wipes her out for the day and she’s not able to get much else done. Yesterday, it was edema in her R leg that called me to the Lakewood ER, where we spent more than 6 hours seeking diagnosis and treatment.
We’ve been slowly transitioning the role reversal; me becoming the caretaker and her in the role of the child. A few winters ago, she got a bad cold that turned into pneumonia and I had to call an ambulance to take her to the hospital as she was having trouble breathing, and I didn’t think she should wait the 25 minutes for me to drive there and pick her up. I remember how small she looked in that bed, with the 02 mask on, apologizing for being “a bother,” and clearly uncomfortable with the role reversal. As was I, but that’s not the time to show it.
Being a mother myself has helped a little bit with dealing with this switching of roles. I’m now used to advocating on behalf of someone who isn’t able to, of pushing for answers and asking the right questions. And my many years of complicated personal medical history give me some level of comfort when interacting with doctors and medical staff that most other people don’t have. My mother used to advocate for me, now I do it for her. I’m gracious and follow procedure, but am not afraid to push if I think it’s important to do so. But it’s uncomfortable for both of us and we’re still adjusting to it. We make jokes and tell stories to pass the time when we are together like this. We’d both rather talk to each other than stare at a TV or read magazines. My hearing is starting to fail, but hers is even worse, so I’m the one constantly saying, “She can’t hear you, can you speak up?” or “What does that mean?” or “What’s the normal level?” I had a detailed discussion with the on-call about whether or not the antibiotic they prescribed would be right for her, given her drug allergies and history of reaction, and we came to agreement together on a med based on more detailed discussion, with me picking up some Benadryl for her in case she reacted to it in the night.
I could have sworn I heard a gunshot when I came out of the Walgreen’s last night at almost midnight. I’m normally pretty civic minded and would report such things, but all I could think was, just get in the car and get away from here, you don’t have time – get back to Mom’s and make sure she’s squared away for the night.
You don’t have time. Indeed, we have so little.