Friday, May 22, 2009

13. Running Interference

How does one face the indignity of old age gracefully?

I recently spent a week in the Dallas area visiting my parents and aunt in their new retirement facility. It is a lovely place with beautiful grounds, spacious living accommodations, decent food and many activities from which to choose. As the trip approached I began to feel a sense of dread- I was anxious about seeing my mother and dad there and not in the family home in Lubbock. But that particular fear did not materialize: their apartment is full of familiar things and feels like them. And most of all they are where they need to be.

But the sense of dread was not misplaced. First of all, I was unprepared for the realities of staying in a retirement place for a week. But more importantly I was dismayed by my dad’s deterioration. Even though my sister had warned me that he could barely walk, I felt that something very significant was slipping through my hands.

There are so many different types of people at the Remington and most would probably prefer to be somewhere else. Walkers, electric wheelchairs and oxygen tanks are common. Cliques form in the dining hall whereas others are left to eat alone. When entering the lobby you are forced to walk the gauntlet, through the folks sitting around chatting. It is always the same group and as you walk past you hear the not-so-whispered comments: Who’s that? Who’s she visiting? Emily was nearly assaulted by an old codger wanting to take her out to dinner.

Most amusing, yet also sad, was a couple trying to have some sort of romantic relationship. She was insanely jealous of anytime her man friend spoke to another woman and I could hear them yelling at each other as they watched wrestling matches in front of the big screen television down the hall.

For several years my dad has had congestive heart failure and spinal stenosis and has been in a slow decrescendo. In fact in 2005 the doctor gave him a year to live. But I am not surprised that he has hung on- that side of my family tree just doesn’t know how to die. They wring out every last drop of life and, unfortunately, usually wear out the caregivers in the process. As downcast as I am at seeing Dad’s demise, it is equally sad to see what’s happening to my mother.

Coming to terms with Dad’s illness has been a slow process for Mother and there have been times when I believe she has single-handedly kept him alive. They have an extraordinary marriage, but she is now a caretaker more than a wife. The strain of taking care of Dad, as well as her own aging, has led her to lean more and more on my sister and me as she struggles with decisions. Gone is the confident, optimistic woman I grew up with. And Amy and I are weary, too, after the endless persuasions, encouragements and even arguments necessary to get them out of their home in Lubbock.

It is hard for me to imagine what it feels like to be unable to take care of one’s own most basic needs or to lose control of bodily functions. I looked into the faces of the Remington residents, knowing full well that many are at this stage of life. Some are able to cover this up and perhaps even deny it, but what does it feel like on the inside, when it’s just you acknowledging it to yourself? How are some able to maintain their dignity while others slip into despair? And how many only put on a happy face, pretending to accept the situation, while actually living in a personal hell, wanting this life to end?

As I watched my mother give herself completely over to caring for my dad, sometimes sympathetically and sometimes resentfully, I could not help but wonder if I was seeing myself in the not-so-distant future. My husband is 21 years older than me, and although we have had a fairly normal married life together I see some things starting to change. Hearing loss, forgetfulness, occasional cognitive confusion- these seem inevitable signs of aging which are becoming more noticeable and problematic. Bill has often said, only half-jokingly, that he doesn’t need long-term care insurance because he has his younger wife to take care of him.

As a wife I know that I will, in fact, take care of Bill in any way necessary as he grows older. But selfishly, I don’t want to turn into my mother. I have years left of energy and interest in my career as a musician: many organ works to learn and perform and many choral works to conduct. There are thousands of miles I want to cover and so many friends to spend time with… I pray that fate will not ask me to spend these peak years mainly as a caregiver.

I have an indelible memory of my trip: of being in Target with my mother as she begged the pharmacist to fill a prescription which the doctor had forgotten to authorize, all the while holding a bag of adult diapers. Every bit of grief, worry and pain that she’s endured the past few years were etched on her face… and in my heart as well. I returned to Maine feeling bruised and battered, as if I’d been running interference between my parents and the blows of life.

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