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*Warning: naughty language ahead!
Parenting is not for the weak.
I have known this at every stage: toddlers/tweens/teenagers/young adults/puppies/insert whatever being you’re currently parenting—especially puppies.
Something else that’s not for the weak? Parenting your elderly parents.
My dad died in 2011, he was 94. He wanted to live to be 106, but his body tired out, and his mind eventually followed. The last time I saw him, he looked so sad so I sat on his lap, stroking his cheek and asked, “What’s the matter, Papa?” He gently patted my hand and said, “Oh nothing, darlin’; I’m just old and tired.” A few days later, his spirit left his old and tired body behind to soar to new adventures. He visits me now as a hawk.
Shortly after his death, we built an addition onto our house and moved my nearly 80-year-old mother out of her downtown home to live out her golden years with us in the country. I had really high expectations of how fabulous this was going to be. It probably won’t shock you that the reality didn’t exactly line up with these lofty dreams.
Living with my mom again as an adult forced me to face a lot of shit I thought I’d dealt with but actually just left behind in my childhood home when I moved out at age 20. Overcoming repressed childhood issues at 40 was not ideal, but I wouldn’t change my decision, and I don’t regret it.
Eight years later, my mom is 87. She is 4’11” and weighs 80 pounds. My world sometimes feels paradoxical as I edit a memoir in which my mom is vibrant, strong, even tyrannical sometimes, and then I stroll through the looking glass (or pocket doors in my living room) to care for the tiny, frail creature my mom has become.
Those expectations I had when she moved in have faded and reality now looks like this:
Four years ago she had a major depressive episode and didn’t sleep for months.
I have called 911 frequently enough that I can methodically move the furniture to make room for a stretcher to pass in the few minutes it takes for the paramedics to arrive. I can pack a hospital bag in seconds: phone charger, book, iPad, water, apple.
She falls. Often. Last year she broke her hip. This year she split her lip open. In between were falls resulting in compressed vertebrae and bruises. The last time, I had to pick her up and carry her back to bed because she couldn’t walk. Most falls required hospital stays and weeks of rehab.
She doesn’t remember if she ate, but she isn’t hungry.
She doesn’t recall talking to anyone, but her phone rang a few minutes before.
She banged her coffee cup with a spoon to get my attention yesterday, complaining that “Neither of these things work,” while holding up her TV and cable remotes, on which she had been trying to call me.
We have the same conversations over and over, and I bite my tongue to keep from saying, “I told you that.”
I take long breaths and speak slowly when she doesn’t have her hearing aids in…or when she dropped them and they fell under her chair and she can’t find them.
That’s mostly the easy stuff.
Washing her little frail body. Holding her up, while sliding one arm and then another into her nightgown. Helping her slip into the Depends she now wears instead of underwear. Trying not to let her see me gag when I empty the bedside commode. That stuff is hard. And my siblings remind/warn me that it’s only going to get harder.
After that last time I saw my dad, I sat down at the kitchen table with my mom and shared my thoughts that he wasn’t going to get better. She said, “He’s been like this before and bounced back.”
I cautioned, “I don’t think he’s going to bounce back this time. Are you going to be okay if he doesn’t?”
She kind of shrugged and said, “I guess that’s my only choice.”
Recently, my sister asked if I thought my mom would bounce back. I don’t know. She’s bounced back from losing both her parents when she was seven months pregnant with her seventh child, losing two sons, losing many dear friends, losing her husband, and losing her brother—I would not count her out yet.
This season of our lives feels lonely in a familiar way. When my kids were little, my husband and I mostly stayed home because we didn’t like to leave them. This feels kind of like that. Except that unlike my kids, my mom’s journey isn’t leading to her independence.
If you’re caring for an aging parent, I feel you. It’s hard in a lot of ways that no one prepares you for. There is no “What to Expect When Your Parents Get Old” or “The Girlfriends’ Guide to Caring for Elderly Parents” books to look to for guidance. There are things no one warns you about, or prepares you for, and decisions you can’t anticipate needing to make. Hard, uncomfortable stuff that few of us want to think about, much less discuss.
Here’s what I want you to know—and like my dad used to say when he corrected my golf swing, “You know when I’m talking to you, I’m really talking to myself:”
This is really fucking hard.
Most of your friends probably won’t understand, and that’s okay.
Feeling overwhelmed and sad and like you can’t do it doesn’t make you a bad person.
You can and should say no to anyone and anything that asks for more of you right now.
This is a season and, like other seasons, it will end. That will be a different kind of hard.
You can only do so much; ask for help and be willing to accept it in any form.
Find an outlet. Or a few. I recommend wine, reality TV, and novels.
Let yourself fall apart. Let people love you back together.
You are not alone.
You can do this.