By Dorothy Sander
My 95 year old mother likes to believe she’s independent. Over the past five years since my father died I have encouraged her to live with me and my family. She stubbornly refuses to depend on or interfere in her children’s lives. Instead, she lives in a retirement community, one that has taken her and my deceased father’s entire life savings to pay for and still requires ongoing monthly input from her five children.
Mom believes she’s independent but in reality it takes all five of us, a ton of patience and more than one glass of wine to keep this 98 pound woman going and she is in near perfect health, other than the annoyances of poor eyesight, hearing, balance and memory. My siblings, two brothers and two sisters, each handle the situation differently, some with more aplomb and dignity than others. There are as many different ways of dealing with the care of our aging parents as there are people. My siblings and I are a microcosm and can afford a brief look at some of the varying reactions to this life event.
One sister, who has always had the least ability to understand or accept Mom’s contrariness, restlessness and just plain stubbornness, has the misfortune (or God given challenge) of taking care of my mother’s day to day needs. Catherine lives closest to Mom and has a flexible schedule without job or family constraints. She has taken on the task with gusto, as is her style, and has made it her full blown responsibility to do the best job possible. Mom, however, is rarely content.
“Why can’t she just be happy? I do everything in my power to make her happy! I buy her plants, I take her to the doctor, and I arrange her hair appointments and physical therapy. The other people that live in her community are busy doing things and enjoying life,” she continues, “Why can’t she?” The anger and frustration oozes out between her words like thick molasses. Her question is a reasonable one. But Mom’s always been contrary.
Early on, I learned to give up trying to change my mother making it easier for me to accept and even come close to understanding my mother’s way of handling her journey into aging. Her increasing disregard for her appearance and her disinterest in socializing make some sort of sense to me. These things are no longer priorities to her.
“Why is she wearing that ratty old thing? She has a closet full of clothes!” Catherine erupts. Most of which she bought Mom in an attempt to get her to “shape up.”
Mom recently said, “If I had someone to wash and iron my clothes, pick them out and lay them out for me to wear, I think I could live forever.” I believe this reveals her growing difficulty and lack of energy to undertake even the smallest tasks. As each day passes even the most enjoyable activities become more difficult. It’s a struggle for her to hear the words spoken on TV, or to clearly make out the words on a page in a book or magazine she is trying to read. Having a conversation with a neighbor requires her to rise above the insecurity induced by not being able to think of the words needed to express what she is thinking. “I just feel so dim-witted! These people are so smart and I can’t carry on a conversation that makes any sense. Even if I have something I want to say, I can’t remember the details or find the words I need.” Proud of being a college graduate in a time when women didn’t often go to college, it hurts her pride. Opening a bottle of aspirin requires a pressure on the fingers that is now painful to her and impossible to do. She tries to bake cookies for her neighbors and can’t keep track of the ingredients, often leaving out one ingredient or another. What she once did easily is now monumental.
My sister, unfortunately, isn’t ready to let Mom just be who she is. It’s tough to accept your own mother’s aging process in all its imperfection and unsightliness. So Sis continues to run herself ragged buying Mom clothes, cleaning and organizing the closet, all the while terrified of not making her happy. Maybe she feels as though she is running out of time to accomplish this feat. I try to tell her, like I repeatedly tell myself, that it is not our job to make her happy, a truism in all relationships. That still falls on Mom’s shoulders.
Another sister living in the same town has chosen to put her own life first. “I just decided I’m not going to let her ruin my life. I’m done letting her do that,” she said. And so she relegates Mom to a small corner of her life. She runs errands and takes her to the hairdresser, mostly to help Catherine out, but avoids as much emotional connection as possible. Sandra is not an unloving, or uncaring person. She simply has chosen to deal with my mother’s aging her own way. Maybe it’s less painful that way, but I wonder if regrets will set in after Mom is gone.
My two brothers live a 15 hour drive away. They share responsibility for financial matters and visit or call as often as they can. They don’t worry like my sisters and I do about her daily happiness or psychological well-being. As long as she’s relatively healthy, they keep their concerns to the practical side of matters. My brothers do all the guy things Mom dreams up for them to do when they visit and their wives send notes and pictures of great grandchildren. My oldest brother Tom is working tirelessly to gather genealogical information and old photos, documenting every item any of us possess that represents our heritage. Mom is the oldest living relative in either her family or my father’s and she will carry a treasury of our family history with her to the grave. Tom carries a tape recorder with him when he visits recording the anecdotes she relates about her past. Recalling and reliving their life is a common activity for the elderly and part of the process.
I live three hours and 20 minutes away. I do not have to deal with Mom daily but she comes to stay with us for a week to 10 days on a regular basis and I visit her in-between. Yes, she tries my patience and I am always relieved when she goes home, but I have come to cherish her visits.
The siblings and spouses struggle with how much responsibility we can handle and how much time we can devote to the task. As with all families, we carry psychological baggage and the unfinished business of any parent/child relationship. Each time she visits though I learn something new about her or myself. Spending time with her to sit and listen has helped me grow, especially in understanding our relationship. I know her better and can finally accept her for who she actually is, not who I want her to be or think she is. Sometimes it is difficult to just sit and chat when I have so many other things to do, especially when I hear the same story 10 times, but it has made me stop and consider the aging, dying process.
We often forget that our aging parents are still people, albeit difficult, cantankerous and certainly demanding. Trite though it may sound, it is helpful to realize, and more importantly accept, that their lives are dwindling down to memories of the past and their focus on the future is narrowing. They are closing in to themselves, both physically and emotionally. It is time for them to look backward and evaluate. They no longer want or need to look forward and plan. They are not interested in replacing the 20 or 40 year friendships they’ve lost to death. Their story has been told and they often have little need to write another chapter.
They are trying to let go. We can’t and shouldn’t interfere with this process but rather accompany them, as we are able, along the journey.
Erik Erikson who is known as “the father of psychosocial development” believed that each of us passes through 8 stages of development in our lifetime. The elderly are in the last stage that he called “Integrity vs. Despair.” In this stage a person looks back over their life and evaluates whether or not it was as fulfilling as they had hoped it would be. If they affirm that it was a good life, they become ready to face death. If they cannot affirm their lives they fear death.
As our parents wait for death, our gift as children and grandchildren is to accept their individual method of traveling the course and to take as much time out of our busy lives as we can to just be with them; to sit and listen to their stories, to share a meal and to give them an extra hug or two along the way. It goes without saying their physical needs must be dealt, but it is their growing sense of isolation and aloneness that can be most frightening to them, especially if they are struggling to accept their lives as they’ve lived them. They are finding their way onto a new and unknown path they must travel alone. But we can walk with them as far as we can.
If we can find our own way down this emotional and often difficult passageway, we’re better for it. But we need to weigh our own emotional and physical strength and ability to cope with our aging parents and find a way that is comfortable for us. I try not to judge my sisters and brothers for their way of caring for my mother, though I can’t say I don’t wish sometimes they’d see things more my way. I understand we are all at different places in our emotional development and have different life pressures. We handle things as well as possible. The most important part of this process isn’t the care-taking, the errands and chores that won’t change the outcome. For me, I want to accompany her along her journey and do what I can to help her face and accept the process. The chores still need to be done, but they are just added to my to-do-list and no longer carry the emotional weight they once did. When viewed this way “taking care of her” allows time to sit down with her and have a cup of tea without any expectations.
Dorothy Sander lives at home in Durham, NC with her husband and two college age sons. She has a M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, works with her husband in their family owned and operated painting contracting business and is a freelance writer.