This last weekend I visited my husband’s aunt Margot and her partner Ginny. Margot will be 90 years old this January and we have visited her every summer for the last 18 years or so, maybe longer. We would stay with her as a part of visiting my husband’s family at their lake cottage in Indiana. Now that both of my in-laws have died we make sure to take time every summer to fly east and spend time with Margot and Ginny. It was wonderful being with family and getting away, but it left me with a lot of things to think about.
Margot has dementia. She had dementia last time I saw her and probably the time before that as well, but this time…ouch. She would ask the same questions over and over again. She often couldn’t remember something for more than three or four minutes…even if that something was as simple as “Have I eaten lunch?” She would forget that I had sat next to her eating breakfast as soon as I left the breakfast nook to head upstairs for my shower. It took me a few days to realize that Margot was not always oriented to time either; sometimes she seemed to forget that Phil and I have been married for 27 years and aren’t fresh-faced newlyweds anymore. I wish I could remember more examples of her behavior, mostly because I want to convey to you how alarming it was to realize how much she was deteriorating. I remember Margot as the consummate hostess, on top of everything. I expected her physical health to deteriorate as she aged and for her ability to be the hostess to come to an end; I guess I didn’t expect her mind to leave us before her body did. The hardest part was realizing shortly after I boarded the plane to come home that Margot wouldn’t remember our visit by the time dinner rolled around. We left her home for the airport shortly after lunch.
I had a number of discussions with Margot’s partner Ginny about the challenges of taking care of Margot. I won’t go into details because Margot would be horrified if she knew I was telling you about her struggles. I realize that she will never read this blog (and even if she did, she wouldn’t remember the content for more than a few minutes) but hey—I love the woman and I don’t want to do anything that would cause her pain, whether she’ll actually have a chance to experience that pain or not.
The thing that has been picking at me ever since I started speaking frankly and honestly with Ginny about the challenges of being a caregiver is how deeply we fail, as adults, to prepare ourselves for becoming old. I realize that most of us think about the money we’ll need when we retire, and where we want to live when we’re old and done with our career…maybe we even think about final things and write a will or create a medical power of attorney so that we can insure that our wishes for our own final days will be carried out faithfully. All of those things are great, but these are not the things I’m talking about. I’m talking about the stuff that few of us plan for, the stuff that has nothing to do with finances or who gets what. So for the sake of this blog post, let’s just assume that all of will live to be 95 years old before we die.
So…what goes along with being old? Sagging skin…age spots…difficulty moving as quickly and as deftly as you used to…aching joints…Medicare…those kinds of things. And I think all of us can accept those kinds of things, as long as nothing worse than those things happen.
Except things far worse than those things happen when you grow old.
I have taken care of both of my in-laws as they died, and I am here to tell you that if grow old before you die, you will probably lose the ability to take care of your basic needs before you die. This is the point where you say “Duh! I think I knew that!” and I say “Really? Are you ready to have someone change your diaper? Wipe your bottom? Shower you while you sit there naked?”
I’m betting you’re horrified at these thoughts. Most of us are horrified at the possibility that we won’t be able to go to the toilet alone, or shower alone; that we may need to have someone help us do something as simple as eat a meal. Basically, we avoid thinking about the possibility that before we die we will be as helpless as an infant and require as much care.
Sticky problem, isn’t it?
You and I really cannot do much to avoid such a future. Oh, we can eat healthy and exercise, do things to prolong our healthy years, etc. but there is no way to avoid the slings and arrows of aging. We cannot predict if we will become debilitated with cancer, or if we will lose our minds and abilities to dementia, or become disabled because of a stroke…we have NO idea what our future holds.
The truth is that we have never been able to predict our future. But I am betting that many of us have had children, and at some point in that journey we asked ourselves what we would do if ____________ happened to our child. You can fill in the blank with all sorts of challenges. What if our child is born with Downs Syndrome? What if our child is deformed or disabled? What if our child commits a terrible crime? What if our child is a genius? What if our child is mentally ill? What if our child uses drugs? What if our child is a musical prodigy? What if our child goes against our religious beliefs? What if our child is gay? What if our child never marries? What if…what if…what if…
I don’t know about you, but my husband and I spent hours and hours thinking about how we would handle different scenarios, and I must admit it gave me comfort to think about some of the challenges that we might face as we raised our daughters. Some of those challenges actually came true and I believe (although I may be wrong) that we faced our challenges with greater grace and peace because we had already made some decisions in advance.
What stops us from thinking about our own aging? Why, when we are so careful to think about the challenges we may face in our marriage or with children, do we fail to think through what might happen as we age? It’s not that hard to do. Try it. For a moment, think about how you would LIKE to handle it if you would need to have someone clean you after using the toilet because you are unable to do it yourself. Go ahead…imagine the scene, and then imagine yourself dealing with your feelings, your impulses, your loss of independence and power…think about how you would like to act without suddenly granting yourself abilities (like independence) that you might not actually have.
For myself, I would hope that I would have the grace to thank my caregiver for their help. I hope that I will take the time to make conversation with my caregiver, get to know them and perhaps become friends with them. I would hope that if I was struggling with humiliation at my situation that I would remember that my caregiver has feelings and needs and that I would pray for them to have patience with me; then I would ask for as much grace as God could grant so that I could let go of my ego and sense of humiliation over needing that much assistance. Do I like thinking about this scenario? NO. Do I need to think about this scenario? My experiences with taking care of my in-laws speaks a resounding YES. When it comes to caregiving, I have already done diaper duty and I pray that my mother-in-law could felt my love for her radiating out of me as I cleaned her bottom. I hope she felt no humiliation and simply knew that whatever she needed was okay with me.
After all…that’s how I felt when I cared for my own babies. We forget that babies are born totally helpless and remain helpless to effectively care for themselves for years after their birth. I was still showering with my youngest daughter until she was 11 years old and finally achieved puberty. Once puberty hit I couldn’t get her to stop showering and had to limit her to three showers a day. Why was it so easy to care for my children and love them unconditionally no matter how much care they needed and how often their needs changed? And why is it that when I am faced with becoming just as helpless in my old age do I have this idea that my worth as an adult rests on my ability to care for myself without assistance? We act as if babies are priceless…as if young children are worth their weight in gold…mostly because this is absolutely true. How is it, then, that we do not grant ourselves the same worth when we become old and need the same assistance that small children and infants do?
I do not understand why aging and our eventual helplessness is such a bitter pill for us to swallow. What I do know is that we will all find ourselves in the position of being caregiver for an elderly person, and we will all find ourselves in the position of being the elderly person who needs care (unless we tragically die before we reach our old age.) I challenge you to decide NOW how you want to think about being elderly and needing care for your most basic needs. I challenge you to decide how you want to think about caregiving for your parents, your elderly relatives, and maybe even your siblings. I challenge you to think about how you want to understand yourself and your personal value when you can’t do anything and have to allow others to take care of you. Do it NOW while you still have time to think about it with leisure and clarity, because there is no guarantee that you will have any clarity left at the point you begin to need care. The decisions you make NOW may be the difference between being miserable in your old age and being one of those elderly folks that others want to grow up to be.