Francine Falk-Allen, author of No Spring Chicken: Stories and Advice from a Wild Handicapper on Aging and Disability (She Writes Press)
No one is ever ready for the day when Mom is not the meticulous housecleaner or active volunteer that she once was. Or when Dad starts skipping walking with his buddies this week, and next week too. “That Point” always comes too soon, and often in the midst of adult children’s own challenges: kids with school difficulties, turbulent teenagers, midlife divorce, a demanding career. You may learn that Mom, who has stairs at home, has osteoporosis and is at risk for a broken hip (women in their eighties who fall and break a hip usually die within two years; the rehab is tough and they become discouraged), or Dad’s back bothered him last month so he forgot to pay the mortgage.
It’s more than anyone should have to shoulder, and yet it’s the partly unchosen “lifestyle” of over 30 million women in the US. If you need some fast assistance with this, I suggest checking out the Family Caregiver Alliance (www.caregiver.org) or perhaps AARP’s website: https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/. It is particularly important to set boundaries: “I’ll be here at 6:30 Wednesdays and Bill will come by on Sundays.” Caregiver burnout is real; most of those 30 million women mentioned are logging twenty hours a week of family caregiving. For parents without long-term care insurance or savings to pay for help, care responsibility falls on the family. But meanwhile, I’ll make some more personal suggestions based on my own experience as a woman in her 70’s. I am also a polio survivor with a mostly paralyzed, weak leg.
As my ability to walk more than a block or two further diminished in my 50’s and 60’s, I noticed that my friends were not calling to invite me to the activities we’d always enjoyed. While they were going on two-mile walks with other friends, I became the person they occasionally had lunch with. This hurt at first, but I realized that I would need to make adaptations and do the inviting. A friend once said to me, “My mom doesn’t want to go to the mall anymore. We used to go every weekend; now I don’t know what we can do together.” Well, I thought, there are lots of other things you could do. Put on your big girl pants.
Your mom may not want to tell you that her body hurts. Or, she may complain about it but hates going to the doctor. I suggest that you do not chide her and try to get her to walk farther and longer, which could exacerbate the problem. Pain is a truth teller. She may need to see a medical professional and find out what’s wrong. She may need to lose weight; being overweight makes joint and back pain worse. (So, don’t bring over her favorite cookies. It’s up to her to diet, but you can help by not feeding the craving.) Maybe get her a chair yoga DVD, find a warm therapy pool, or go to a class together. Some of the time you spend with her can be, instead of an obligation, an event in which you get some R&R as well or accomplish a needed task concurrently. Take a reading assignment to her house while she watches TV. You are still together, and that counts big with a parent.
What does she love to do? Take her to a park. If she’s got a scooter--and I strongly recommend them—there are lots of places you can go on the weekend where you can walk and she can ride along, and hop off when you find something worth seeing up close―a garden or some artwork in a museum. That’s what I do with my husband on our jaunts. I also see my friends more often now that I can go for a “walk” with them.
Is Mom’s home safe? There may be sub-optimal aspects about it. Dishes feel heavier as our hands become arthritic, which can happen early. Things should be stored in the kitchen close to where they will be used. No one likes someone to come in and rearrange their life, so ask first. “What if I moved the plates and silverware nearer the table? Plates are heavy; I’d like to make things easier for you,” is a kind way to open the door toward improving someone’s environment. Remove loose rugs or make sure they have rubber safety mats under them.
There may come a time when the old family home is too much, especially if Mom lives alone. I love my home, but the maintenance and gardening are taking their toll. Someday, we’ll either need to have live-in help (we have been good savers), or we’ll look at selling this beloved place to a younger family who can enjoy it as we have. The conversation about this type of move may be unwelcome, so bring it up long before it’s necessary. “What are your living plans when you’re in your eighties, Mom?” is a good question to ask when mom’s in her fifties. If it’s something unrealistic, seeds can be planted regarding how much easier it might be to live in a community close to services, where there is also less maintenance. If you’re concerned about your parents’ finances, they aren’t going to be keen on your suddenly taking over their financial management. Offering to put bill paying on their computer can be a huge help and over time may have them feel more comfortable with your involvement in their affairs.
The same is true of housekeeping. My mom’s eyesight was failing when she was around eighty, her house was becoming dirty, and she had become a hoarder. I lived three hours away, so I asked a friend of hers to find someone at her church who could come in to clean. They offered, and she turned them down. Too late. She didn’t want anyone seeing her living situation.
Don’t pat your parent on the head when they’re in a wheelchair, or any other chair (it’s condescending), and do squat or sit when you talk to them so you are both at eye level. Don’t say, “You should have asked for help!” Most people hate to ask for help. When we start to need more of it, we save our “asks” for the things we really cannot do. It is also kinder to say, “I’m sorry this [injury, illness, deterioration] happened to you,” rather than, “I don’t know what I’d do in your situation. It must be awful.” You can invite people to talk about their difficulties by saying, “How are you feeling?” If someone is complaining, there’s probably a legitimate reason. Statements like “Count your blessings,” Think positive!” or “God must have a reason for this” imply blame. I would rather someone say, “Boy this is a crummy situation!” We can get that out of the way, and have a good time watching a funny movie.
I hope I’ve rung a few bells for you. There are few easy fixes, but sometimes one small change at a time will make everyone’s life easier.
Not a Poster Child: Living Well with a Disability—A Memoir (She Writes Press)