I have decided to share tender stories on Tuesdays with my readers. This doesn’t mean they won’t have humor and a bit of cheek, but most of all, hopefully they’ll touch you personally.
TENDER TUESDAYS will be a series of posts that will start with sharing post installments of Seniors Caring for Seniors. Enough time has elapsed since the passing of my father-in-law, that one feels compelled to write about the humorous, tender moments experienced with this 93 year old that is so dearly missed.
With people living longer these days, there’s a new phenomenon occurring within society where life expectancy for healthy people to exceed expectations has become the norm. Celebrating one’s 100th birthday is now an everyday occurrence on the nightly news. I know, right? There’s a growing probability that if one makes it to 90, it’s assumed one will reach that incredible milestone of 100! What may not be obvious to everyone is that the caregivers of this aging population are the senior citizen children and spouses. Yes, the caregiving “KIDS” are actually in their 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s themselves! In fact, the caregivers are often less healthy and agile than their aged parents!
My father and mother-in-law had moved into an Independent Living apartment in their late 80’s. They had their supportive daughter and son-in-law, ever present in their lives throughout the years. Their relationship was very close and not just one of family ties, but deep friendship.
When my fully employed husband (in his late 60’s) and I (don’t even think of asking my age…) arrived home from an extended cruise holiday, my father-in-law pulled his son aside, for the first time in his life, at age 93, and said, “I’m going to have to lean on you over the next while, son. “We knew he had lung cancer with tumors being monitored for growth. He NEVER complained and was ALWAYS devoted to lovingly care for his wife of 68 years.
His condition deteriorated rapidly and within days, his limbs became swollen as the cancer had spread to his prostrate. He continued to drive himself to Dr. appointments, pick up baking ingredients for his wife’s delectable kuchens, and run errands to the German Bakery for their favorite breads. That is until his “kids” strongly suggested that since he had to pick his heavy legs up one at a time to get into his vehicle, it might be safer to have them do the errands and accompany them to their Dr. appointments and haircuts. To everyone’s surprise, he readily complied. That was our first sign that perhaps he was relieved to be liberated of his duties. (Thankfully, no harm had come to anyone while he was still on the road! ) We did hear, later, that he and a pal from their Independent Living Complex drove out to the countryside, a couple of weeks before he relinquished his car keys, to buy fresh honey. Unfortunately, they missed their exit and ended up in a town several kilometers past the honey farm, wondering how that happened?! By then, the pair were so discombobulated, they sheepishly returned home “honey-less”.
Giving up his car keys was the turning point. His medical condition became a reality for all of us. We had to adjust our lives to ensure that Mom and Dad both could cope with this new phase of suddenly becoming dependent. Not exactly the smoothest or easiest transition for all six of us, as we learned to navigate the health system. (Oh, and did I mention that we live about 25 minutes out of the city?) Dad had always been the one who drove, fetched, tidied, helped with the baking, and even made the coffee for their visitors. Mom has chronic shingles pain and is a conscientious diabetic on insulin. After a broken hip, her mobility and balance became limited, and Dad had the responsibility of keeping her safe from falling and ensuring she remembered to take her pills. Suddenly, all of that had changed overnight. In a blink of an eye, Dad became the one who was immobile and couldn’t get in and out of bed himself or walk to the bathroom without assistance. He required a strong presence to provide stability while navigating a walker and standing.
The kids scrambled to bring in care workers into their parents’ one bedroom, overly furnished apartment. (Yep, downsizing from their home meant that the oversized Grandfather Clock, all the living room furniture plus two recliners, and bedroom suite moved with them!) Visualize scheduling private nurses over the Christmas holidays, to provide the level of care that both parents now required. We all felt strongly that Dad should remain in their home as long as it was possible. This meant greeting a different nurse almost every shift (mornings and evenings). One of us had to be there to orient them to the care required and the duties to be performed. Imagine 3 walkers in a small apartment, with 3 other adults in it, and you can picture the chaos of the scene! Mom liked some of them, but she had no control over scheduling her favored pick. In fact, one morning a very young man (a new hire in his late teens) arrived at the apartment when my husband’s sister was there to supervise. They didn’t even let him in the door and sent him packing. Mom wasn’t going to have him accompany her for her shower!! The elders, the kids, the private nurses, the cleaners, … the CHAOS!!
Are you getting the picture? Elder care has both tender moments, as well as feelings of being overwhelmed and out of one’s comfort level. After all, not many of us are trained in health care and nursing doesn’t come naturally to all of us. (Some of us are predisposed with convenient inabilities to pick up dog poop or change baby diapers, let alone help another adult with toileting. Or some of us have heaving stomachs when the patient starts to cough up guck… And then of course, the caregiving senior kids have back and strength issues of their own…) In spite of the challenges, there are these pearls of tender moments that occur during this period that in retrospect, you would never want to have missed. These fond memories return, afterwards, to help you overcome the unsettling fatigue and helpless feelings you may have experienced.
During the home stay period, the kids would share the duties of putting Dad (and Mom) to bed and helping to get him out of bed in the morning. One night, (perhaps it was the fatigue), we had both parents in their bed clothes, teeth brushed, false teeth soaking, and just as the grandfather clock struck 9:00, Mom came around the corner pushing her walker and Dad came around the other corner with his walker and my husband and I collapsed in hysteria. It was like watching a live cuckoo clock and I swear that vision will be imprinted in our memories forever! Mom got the humor of the situation right away and joined in the laughter, Dad… not so much!
Another morning when we arrived early, to help get Dad out of bed, we were met my Mom (who always slept in later in the morning) at the door. She told us that she had breakfast ready (which used to be her husband’s job), and that he was just sitting on the bedside looking out the window and wouldn’t come out of the bedroom. I left my husband with his Mom and went in to sit beside my father-in -law on the bed. We had a lovely little chat together, quietly looking outside, and I teased him about sitting so long by the window. Eventually, he became lighter and ready to start his day. That tender moment between the two of us will always stay with me.
And then there were the “falling out of bed” incidents. Dad became more and more unable to manoeuvre getting in and out of his chair and bed in the apartment. When we arrived in the evenings, my husband would help him get ready for bed and then he would get him comfortable on his side of the bed, tucking the sheets, covers, and pillows exactly the way he liked them. Then each of us would go in and give him a kiss goodnight and let him know he was loved. We’d leave the door slightly open and we’d hear him praying away. (He believed strongly that he was going to heaven, when he was ready to go.) One such night, we left, and sometime later, we had a frantic call from Mom. She said she went into the bedroom and found her husband on the floor. The first question out of her mouth was, “What are you doing down there? Are you praying again?” Of course, he wasn’t still praying! Somehow, he had fallen out of bed! Emergency was called, and ambulance drivers arrived to pick him up and get him settled, once more, in his bed. It was during the holidays and Mom was so excited to let us know that they didn’t charge them for the service. They simply wished them a Merry Christmas, instead. Well, weren’t we lucky that he didn’t damage himself? Unfortunately, this happened on the New Year’s Eve holiday weekend and the store that sells bed rails (which we had never considered installing) was not open. You guessed it, the ambulance drivers had a nightly call until we were able to buy the rails. (I think by the 3rd call, they had to start charging… Holiday Season or not!)
My husband’s sister, during this home care period was incredible. She handled the not so pleasant chores and lovingly cared for her parents so that they could continue to be together until it became impossible. Her bedside manner with her dad was so reassuring and loving while she anticipated what his needs were and how best to meet them. No one could have managed his care better than his daughter. She awed me by her supportive tone and consideration when dealing with his care. (Let’s just say, she wasn’t the family member/s who had the queasy stomach syndrome… ) She was a rock for her Mom, ensuring she was there 24/7 to help them cope with all the discomfort, anxiety, and fear that this close couple of 68 years together were going through. We really pulled together as a family unit and everyone took on the roles that we were most capable of handling.
Our family Dr.(meaning OUR as in Dr. to all 6 of us – I’m serious) was there for us and he made a point of making house calls to the apartment to check up on Mom and Dad and question how everyone was coping with the home care. I’m certain this doesn’t happen to most families and that his great sense of humor and caring made the entire situation workable for all of us. We knew we could count on him to help us make the right (and difficult) choices for Dad’s care.
Next Tuesday, I’ll share the second phase of Dad’s journey, as he was moved to the Palliative Care Unit at the local hospital. I know that many of you out there have already experienced this or are navigating your way through it. Hopefully, these tender moments will help you in some way to see the lovely memories that will endure through all the uncertainty, frustration, and emotional upheaval that one experiences when letting a much-loved family member go. If you have some experiences to share, we’d love to hear them. Please do add your comments below.