When one of my aunts was in her nineties her sons were in their seventies and already struggling with illnesses of their own. Luckily she was well cared for in a nursing home and they did their best to visit her and make certain that her finances would remain sufficient to keep her safe and happy regardless of how long she lived. Even that situation ultimately became more and more difficult for my cousins who were aging in tandem with their mother. At the time of her death they are both in their eighties and had to pass the torch of being caretakers to younger members of the family.
My husband and I suddenly find ourselves responsible for his father who recently spent six weeks in the hospital and literally stopped breathing at one point until he was put on a ventilator. When he came to our home he had lost over forty pounds and was only able to walk with either a walker or a cane.
We moved out of our downstairs master bedroom and retro-fitted it for him. We ordered a lower box spring so that the bed would not be too high for him. We installed a new toilet that was higher and purchase a sturdy toilet seat with grab bars. We put three grab bars in the shower and found a shower chair on which he might sit while bathing. We bought a handheld shower nozzle so that he can direct the spray. We created space in the closet and in the dresser and brought his computer to the room. We organized his medications and supervise distribution. We gathered low salt no sugar recipes and take him to his physical therapy sessions. You would think that all is well and we are happy campers all of the time and you would be wrong.
Recently someone told me that I was a saint for doing this. I shook my head and assured her that I was far from that godlike state. Caring for an elderly person like my father-in-law who is ninety three years old can be akin to raising a child. The difference is that the older person has grown accustomed to being in charge and may not take kindly to rules about safety or new routines. Just as with little ones, it takes great stamina and patience to suddenly be responsible for the well being of a senior.
I went into this situation feeling starry-eyed and excited to be able to do something grand for my father-in-law. I envisioned being a kind of Mother Teresa for him. It never occurred to me that he would sometimes fight our efforts to protect him. He often pushes us away when we walk behind him to make sure that he does not fall, since he is in a fragile condition. He purchased cookies and candy at the store and insists on eating them even though he is diabetic. He purposely leaves his cane behind to prove that he can walk without an aid, even though his physical therapist advises him not to try such things. He whispers on the phone to friends that while he is staying with us now, he may soon be back home. He is itching to drive his car even though he tells us that he often feels lightheaded. His social worker tells us that ultimately we will not be able to force him to do anything that he does not want to do. It is frustrating beyond words because we worry about him.
So back to the idea of my being a saint. The truth is that the closest I come to being heavenly is when I pray for patience all day long. I literally ask God to help me remember that this sweet old man is only trying to maintain his dignity. It is difficult for him to be at the mercy of others. He wants badly to turn back the clock and be the strong and independent person he once was. I know and understand these things, yet I still find myself feeling out of sorts from time to time when he balks or does things that I believe are not good for him.
When my own grandfather was ninety years old a doctor told him that he had diabetes and advised him to eliminate all sugar and maintain a diabetic diet. Grandpa just laughed and told the doc that at his age something was bound to get him in the coming years and if it wasn’t diabetes it would be something else. He already ate healthy foods, but he never gave up occasional bowls of ice cream or slices of cake. My grandfather lived to be one hundred eight and was as happy as can be in the process.
My father-in-law is not nearly as energetic or healthy as my grandfather was at his age, but then few people are. Perhaps there comes a time when the elderly decide to just live dangerously rather than constantly counting calories, looking at labels for salt and sugar content, and submitting to the concerns of watchful children. Maybe one day I will be just as adamant that I want to be left alone. Nonetheless, I suppose that it is our duty to at least attempt to dissuade my father-in-law from engaging in activities that may hurt him. Otherwise it would be like allowing a baby to put his hand in a flame just to teach him a lesson.
I’m trying not to be grumpy or to feel beset upon. My world has been turned upside down too and I don’t always take kindly to disruptions in the way I do things. I’d love to be saintly like my friends, Chrystal and Linda, who gave of their time and love to their mothers with angelic joyfulness. I suppose that I have to work on being a little bit better each day. My father-in-law deserves great respect and compassion and we never know how long he may be with us. I want to enjoy our days together even if they sometimes get a bit rough. I love our dinnertime and our evenings watching television together. I’ll concentrate on really enjoying those moments and not stressing over whether or not I am being the perfect caretaker. For now that will be enough. I suppose it’s okay that I am not a saint. Few people in this life are.