The Circle Of Life
How taking care of my aging parents has kept me grounded, grateful and humble
I’ve spent a lot of time in the hospital lately, visiting my 91-year-old mom, who has become somewhat of a regular. Just like the fabled Little Red Riding Hood, I’ve toted my share of goodie-baskets to inspire her to eat to regain her energy. On my last visit, the fare was a tasty, homemade puréed soup of chicken and vegetables — heavy on the chicken because her kidney specialist said she needed the protein.
My mom has mild heart and kidney failure which is complicated by the fact that her body is protein-deficient. I know what you’re thinking — how can “heart failure” and “kidney failure” be mild? It’s slightly above my pay grade to explain, but suffice it to say, those problems were in the process of being stabilized while other issues, like the protein-deficiency, were exacerbating her treatment. How she became protein-deficient is a mystery to me, since she eats most of her meals with us. My mom has lived with my husband and me for the past 19 years, and so did my dad, until he passed away two years ago at 91. So we know my mom’s food is nutritious. Still, she’s seriously ill, and weak, and clearly protein deficiency is one of the complications we’ll need to address during her recovery. And address it we will.
My mom is out of the hospital now, albeit with a new level of fragility that requires an oxygen tank. But nevertheless, thankfully, she came home in the nick of time for our family’s Christmas & Hanukkah festivities, and the joy we all felt was palpable. She is well loved; the oldest surviving grand- and great-grandparent in our large family.
Doctor appointments, health scares, and ER visits have all become commonplace around here. We’re no longer shocked by the string of complications that come with my mom’s hospital stays. We’re continually frustrated, however, when we can’t fix her problems, or make life more comfortable for her. The reality that my mom is 91, and the fact that her time is a precious commodity is not lost on any of us. But her quality of life is critically important to me. I want to make sure she can enjoy the time she has left, however long that might be — and I hope it is plenty long.
Don’t assume by reading this that old age automatically drags illness along with it like the unwanted baggage it is. That’s not necessarily the case. I’ve known many nonagenarians who were working and fairly robust until they were simply done with life. My dad, for example, was in fairly good shape until the last two years of his life. He walked, swam, played cards with his friends, and worked in his wood shop — enjoying things he loved until he simply couldn’t.
And my mom has been a really good sport when it comes to dealing with her pain, and her many other health and life struggles. But then, she’s from an era when folks pretty much took things in stride — nothing was taken for granted. Her generation grew up struggling to cobble things together after WWII. Nothing was wasted — not even time. A person counted one’s blessings everyday for everything one had…a fairly simple but elegant mantra for life.
However, when a parent grows older with serious health issues, it is especially tough on them, no matter how much grit they muster up, which makes it tough on you, the adult child-caregiver. It’s a wake-up call.
At this stage of the game, I’m wide awake, and I’ve come to dread each hospital visit. I can’t stand the fact that my mom becomes noticably weaker by the day when she’s in the hospital, and her weakness doesn’t seem to stem only from the issue that landed her there, but also from the side effects of being in the institution itself. She can’t eat most of the hospital food — for a long list of reasons, and she becomes immobilized by all the tubes and IVs. She gets lethargic from boredom, and disinterested in life inside the dull walls, and constant beeping noice of her hospital room. She sighs a lot. She looks at me and smiles a forlorn smile, and then gazes off into an unseen distance. During those moments, I fear my mother is getting ready to throw in the towel. She tells me she’s just weary of it all, that she’s just…thinking.
I don’t like it when she gets that glassy-eyed look. I imagine she’s ruminating too much about her age, or is worrying about what happens next. My dad did that at a certain point when he was in hospice, and I am not ready for my mom to do it. She hasn’t reached her certain point yet. I hope. But then, it’s not for me to say. I’m not in control. Damn!
As the adult child of an aging parent, I spend too much time thinking about this stuff. I remind myself to enjoy the moments with her instead of worrying about the future, but it’s hard. I know I’m not ready to lose her. Actually, that may not be entirely true. I am resigned to the cycle of life. I’ve already lived through this whole trauma with the passing of my dad, and my mother-in-law, and other beloved people in my life. It’s sad, and hard, and the heartache never goes away, but I understand logically that it is a part of life. But the reality is, the real gut-wrenching truth is, I don’t want to see her go through needless pain. Any pain at all. That’s what I don’t want.
When you are the main caregiver for an aging parent, you see all kinds of things you’d rather not see. Thankfully, I can afford to have additional care for my mom, so I spare us both the embarrassment of me doing the more personal things to her that need doing.
I’ve been a witness to both of my parents as Mother Nature took her course; as they experienced their independence, vitality, strength, and privacy evaporate from their lives. I’ve watched a trail of strangers — most of them admittedly well-meaning and kind, but who nevertheless poked and prodded them, spoke to them as if they were unaware children, changed their pull-up diapers and messed around with their private parts.
Trust me when I tell you, it’s humiliating. I’m grateful my husband and I and my siblings can be there for them — to advocate for them to the best of our ability to make sure they are treated with the utmost dignity and respect. Our parents are courageous to go through the gauntlet of old age. It’s not always easy.
Remember there is beauty in every age, and there can be love in every moment. Physical touch and companionship are vital. Face to face conversations are still the best way to communicate, and these moments provide a lovely respite from lonely days of captivity in a hospital or senior citizen’s home.
These experiences with my parents have taught me plenty. I wake up with gratitude on my lips, and go to sleep with appreciation in my heart. I also have immense gratitude for the kindness and compassion of nurses, doctors and gentle caregivers for the work they do every day to make life easier for senior citizens confronting serious illness in hospitals, nursing homes, and home care.
My New Year’s wish is that the next generation will take the time to be with their aging parents, and appreciate all elderly folks. The challenges they face can be daunting. Your parents, who were once strong, vital, and independent, may gradually lose all of those things. I hope our next crop of caretakers will realize how difficult it will be for us to relinquish the freedom of our younger days. I for one will go out kicking and screaming, skiing down a mountain somewhere — I hope!! But all generations would be wise to be aware that our elders are completing their circle of life, and when a parent must endure difficult hospital stays, it surely makes that time less arduous and frightening for them when family members are near by.
A happy event took place in our family a couple of weeks ago; the birth of a precious baby boy. This sweet baby is my mom’s fifth great-grandchild. He was born when my mother was still in the hospital — and she was busting at the seams to meet him. When we explained that we couldn’t bring the baby to the hospital to see her, she said, “Why not? I’m not ‘catchin’, or anything. I’m just old!” We all laughed, and told her she needed to get well and come home to see him. Luckily, she managed it.
She was holding her great-grandchild on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and as watched her — happily adoring him, I thought, I wish you were ‘catchin’, Mom. You’re such a gift.”