We are all living to die. Death is the inevitable end for all things, but knowing we’ll return to the dust from whence we came does little to calm the fear that strikes us as our relatives’ age. An anonymous writer penned a brilliant piece for XOJane that examines how she’s coping with her mother’s rapid descent into senior citizenship.
While the well-pampered and sometimes younger parents of my rich classmates wore all the right clothes and spent their days perfecting their suspended youth, my mom worked all day, barely took care of herself and somehow still looked younger and fresher, frozen in some vaguely late twenty to early thirty-something appearance seemingly forever.
My mother still looks young, but at some point it moved from an absolute to a relative term. She is not young. She does not even look young. She just looks young for her age. And thinking that is when it hit me. She looks young for her age because my mother is actually getting old.
I know, I know -– age is just a number, it’s how you feel inside, people live longer now, blah, blah, blah. I get all that, but that’s supposed to be about other people, not my mom. I see her slowing a bit, looking less motherly and more matronly, and I realize mother and mortality are not terms I’ve ever truly considered together.
It is painful to realize people don’t last forever. At some point, we’ll be left to piece together memories and attempt to hold on to a voice long-forgotten. Death’s certainty stormed my life in 2012 when my father turned 52 and my mother approached 43. Both are in excellent-health and have few gray hairs, but the likelihood of them living another 50 years is slim. Their inevitable meeting with the maker forced me to re-evaluate life and priorities.
For those dreading the aging of their parents as I am, writer and life coach Martha Beck offers these simple tips:
Trust your intuition about how much care is needed.
Denial is potent and seductive when it comes to dealing with aging. No one wants to acknowledge that a family member is in permanent decline. But when your parent gets really sick, or begins, um, lunching out, you’ll feel an uneasy warning from your gut. Pay attention. The sooner you acknowledge the truth—”I must intercede”—the sooner you can begin exploring care options. And there’s a mess of exploring to do.
Prepare for a logistical wilderness.
There’s no rule book to guide you through the morass of eldercare tasks and demands. Your best source of information is the Internet, where you can e-mail friends and family and research everything from buying walkers to curing constipation. If you’re a caregiver and you don’t like computers, get over it. Buy a laptop—it will cost far less than the mistakes it will help you avoid—and make some 8-year-old teach you to cruise the Web. Everyone I interviewed, even the technophobes, told me that the Internet was a lifeline in negotiating eldercare obligations.
Online information can prepare you—sort of—for the pragmatic tasks you may encounter: filling out medical paperwork, hiring a care nurse, wrestling the car keys out of a beloved parent’s desperate clutches. Many of these duties will be indescribably difficult. But if instincts and information tell you to take a step, take it firmly, without second-guessing, the way you’d lead a frightened horse out of a burning barn. And don’t try to manage everything alone.
Create your own village.
The Navajo and other traditional cultures understand that there’s nothing more soulful than supporting people at the margins of life, those who can’t walk fast or talk sense or remember how to use a toilet. They also know that this takes a village.
It really does.
Most eldercare providers in our village-less society end up jury-rigging systems of helpers. The common refrain I heard from people in the trenches? Take notes. Write down every bit of advice you get, from every person who interacts with your family member: doctors, pharmacists, neighbors, hairstylists. Write down these people’s contact information. For good or evil, they’re your village.
Surrender to the emotional grinder.
Grieving, like physical caretaking, differs from case to case. If you had a troubled relationship with an aging parent, expect to spend lots of time in the anger stage. Use this time to clean your emotional closet. Explore the anger with a therapist. Journal it. Process it with friends. Clean the wounds.
On the other hand, if your declining parent was your main source of emotional support, you’ll find yourself spending lots of time in sadness. You’ll feel as though it’s killing you. It won’t.
Ponder the nature of existence.
There’s nothing like caring for the elderly to help you face your own mortality. Many caregivers told me that their experience was dissolving, through simple drudgery, their fear of death. Pulitzer Prize–winning psychologist Ernest Becker wrote that the denial of death underlies all evils, and that we must drop this denial to live fully.
This is why traditional cultures value even the most fragile, disoriented elder, why the Navajo carry “Grandmother’s bones” with such reverent attention. Even as you grapple with the logistical and psychological stress of eldercare, there will be moments when you find yourself on the “blessing path.” Rather than a long day’s journey into night, you’ll feel yourself making a long night’s journey into day: through fear and confusion to courage and wisdom. Receive this gift, the final one your parents can offer before they take off their shoes, jump out the window, and fly home.