I think we forget sometimes that, in this caregiving situation, we’re talking about people, not saints. We see a little old woman in a wheelchair at the Stop & Shop, or an elderly gentleman caning his way across the exit at a local restaurant, and our heart goes pitter patter, as though we were looking over this week’s ad from the Animal Rescue League – “Sam is a 14-year-old terrier/sheltie mix whose owner just couldn’t afford to take care of him anymore.” All we want to do is say, “awwwww,” and snatch Sam away from that awful crate-bound existence.
(What that ad doesn’t say is that Sam also gets into any trash his nose can lead him to, and will take the hand off of anyone who tries to get said trash away from him.)
Or, we see a middle-aged son helping his father to get up and balanced on his cane at a local restaurant and think, “What patience and care he has.” We don’t know about the shouting match that went on just that morning, when the son had to almost bully the father to go to the walk-in clinic to get a possible urinary tract infection checked out.
It can be difficult, from the inside of this roller-coaster experience, to not hold myself accountable to that image of saintly son-hood and feel myself falling short. When I’ve spent half my day on the phone with doctors’ offices and visiting nursing organizations, working out schedules for home health aides and specialists appointments, it can be hard to have the emotional wherewithal to sit and make small talk with that 88-year-old man, with the weight of missed work deadlines weighing on my mind. But all those endlessly aggravating administrative tasks are every bit as important to keeping him alive as the balancing hand supporting him as he moves from seated to (almost) upright. And it can be difficult to recognize the very human experience he’s going through, watching his world grow smaller and just a lot less fun.
Dad is in one of his almost-o.k. periods now. Which means he’s anxious to put all ideas of infirmity behind him and pick up with the life he left off back in October or November. He’s wondering when I’m going to give him back the keys to his car, so he can drive on his own to his twice-weekly poker game. And he’s making noises about wanting to fly out to St. Louis this summer and rent a car to see his lady friend. By himself. Each time he brings up one of these disaster-tempting thoughts, I have to breathe deeply just to keep myself from exploding before attempting to calmly explain why I think it’s just not a good idea. Then I have to watch his ego slowly deflate, as the reality of his situation falls back onto his shoulders.
In other ways, though, I’ve become much less assertive about trying to get him to change to more healthy ways. If we go out to lunch and he orders a Manhattan, I don’t even flinch – even knowing that the cup of chowder he’s ordered with it probably has a pizza’s-worth of sodium stirred in with the clams, and that the next fluid he takes into his body likely will be his 5 p.m. Scotch. And, on that issue of fluid intake, I have stopped driving myself nuts hocking him about it – I might put a glass of water in front of him when I take away his morning coffee cup, but if it’s still half-full that afternoon, I just let it pass. Forcing my own blood pressure up with that aggravation just makes it that much harder to be gentle when gentleness is needed.
There’s a story we like to tell ourselves in this country about a time when we didn’t send our elderly parents to nursing homes, but, instead, welcomed them with open arms into our homes. This was done, so the story goes, in the spirit of giving back, a return of love for love. Well, the percentage of elderly in nursing homes has actually fallen over the last decade, with more, not fewer, moving in with family when help is required. And, it should be remembered that the average lifespan was significantly lower in those fabled golden years than it is today – when Social Security was enacted in 1935, retirement age was 65 – three years after most folks were expected to die. Older people are living – and needing care – longer, but often in poorer health, thanks to medical advances that can keep them from dying, but not get them entirely well, again, either.
With that in mind, we caregivers need to cut ourselves some slack. We need to recognize the many jobs we’re called to fulfill, from secretary to semi-skilled nurse, cook, housekeeper and financial advisor, and that it’s o.k. to feel drained by all those responsibilities. And if being less focused on physical well-being allows us to have more energy to help keep our parents’ spirits high as their lives wind down… well, we’re all going to die, but we all want to die happy. It’s only human.