Here’s a tip for those who have elderly parents: hold your plans loosely.
You are going on a journey just a much as they are. It starts with a shock when you realize that mom or dad is no longer king of the world, but a person dependent on your and others’ care. Learning to negotiate the world of caregivers and elder institutions and the medical system takes time and energy that you never dreamed you were going to have to give. It’s not easy to figure out what’s needed, let alone how to provide it. Coordinating your efforts with your siblings and other friends and relatives can be quite trying.
If you are lucky, though, you get it figured out. Mom or dad settles into a new routine, with wonderful caring people to help. And you breathe a sigh of relief. You can go back to doing whatever you were doing when you were interrupted.
But it won’t last.
Looking back at my own father’s slow decline from Alzheimer’s, I remember multiple stops that were almost blissful. We were incredibly grateful when a Fijian man helped with dad’s daily shower, and gave my mom a break. Then came the Catholic respite care, which Dad loved to attend. Then we found the care home where lovely Filipino helpers treated dad gently and patiently.
But each of these steps—and lots of other smaller ones along the way—reached an end. They were great—until they weren’t.
When the system hiccups, you feel consternation. What is wrong with these people, this institution? We have to fix it! You think that, once having imposed equilibrium, you have a right to it.
Guess again. The norm has become change. Give thanks for the system that works, but be on the alert for its time of phasing out. The wonderful caregiver shows up late three mornings in a row because she has a grandchild in the hospital, and when you try to talk about it she quits. The assisted living home asks your parent to leave because he has fought with one of the other clients. Your mother falls and, after a stint in the hospital, must find new housing that provides skilled nursing care. Your father can’t renew his drivers’ license and suddenly cannot get groceries for himself. Your mother who has dedicated her life to nursing your father to the end is found on the floor of their apartment, exhausted and dehydrated.
What you learn is a lot like the lessons you learned raising toddlers. You respond to what’s happening now. It’s day by day, week by week, month by month. You don’t project too much into the future. You are amazed and thankful for the way that God brings the right people and programs into your life, just when you are most hopeless and desperate. It will work out. How, you are never quite sure.
After you’ve been through this a time or two, you are amazed at how much denial there is in the world—and used to be in yours. Aging and death are utterly predictable. But when they show up at our door they surprise us every time, and we spend quite a bit of time and energy pretending they haven’t come to stay.