Some years ago, after several emergency visits to her neighborhood hospital, my mother’s health and mental well-being reached a level where my sister and I felt she needed the support of round-the-clock caregivers. Was she terminal? No. Was she as independent as she had been a few months earlier when she went on a two-week cruise by herself? No. She was somewhere in between. She was also 91-years-old, so who could say what would happen next? It was like she was on a seesaw, some days sliding toward “better” and other days barreling toward “worse.” And we were right there with her, our lives, too, teeter-tottering on the brink of chaos.
Let’s face it. We had no experience in caring for an aged mother. We’d never had one before, so it was no surprise that we had no idea what we were doing. The biggest factor in all our decisions had to be maintaining my mother’s health, but not even a kerchiefed gypsy with a crystal ball, let alone any doctor, gerontologist or otherwise, could tell us whether her condition would improve, stay the same, or deteriorate.
There was this magical thing called “quality of life,” but who knew what that looked like for an elderly woman sliding into dementia? Help would have been helpful, but we didn’t know what might be needed, which made it tough to figure out if we were looking in the right places for the right kind of assistance. We were desperate to plan, with no idea what to plan for. What we knew was this:
- Our mother’s current set up had become untenable.
- Both my sister and I were highly capable, organized and well-intentioned individuals.
- We were acquainted with a few trustworthy independent caregivers.
If you’ve ever watched the Olympics, I’ll liken our situation to being on the highest diving platform. You look down and the water is scary far. What you know is that you have to jump off the platform, after which you’ll hit the water below, where you’ll start swimming for dear life. Except all you’ve ever done in your life is a cannonball into the neighborhood pool. We jumped, because we had to.
That was six years ago; since then we’ve become quite accomplished swimmers. These days, I often chat with friends who are in a situation similar to what I was in. I’m astounded by the amount of wisdom and experience I can now offer others about to leap — or be pushed — off that high dive platform. None of it came from schools, conferences or websites; it came from hands-on, in the trenches, make mistakes and figure things out, learning.
Which brings me to the reality: Many of us in our fifties have parents, or have friends who have parents, who’ve reached a point in their lives where they need some help. If you’re in that situation, you know that managing the worries and frailties of a parent’s elder years can be anxiety-filed, all-consuming, tension-inducing, life-changing and a host of other hyphenated phrases. The stress of it can permeate your days and insinuate itself into your dreams despite your best intentions.
One great way to manage the stresses of caring for elderly parents is to have a chance to think about the future before it’s knocking on your door, wiping its dirty feet on your welcome mat, barging on in and taking over your life.
There are tens of thousands of us who have reached an extraordinary level of accomplishment in this field for which there is no degree and no credentials. There are hundreds of thousands more who can learn from us. Which is why I think it’s critical to post our stories. This is my first; expect more to come in the areas of agencies, private caregivers, contractors, employees and figuring out what’s right for you and the hard decisions we all have to make. And, of course, I’ll be covering the guilt of it all – how to manage your expectations and recognizing your achievements.
We’re all Elder Experts. Let’s share the wealth.