By Liz Marchi
In addition to the search for mentors, I have been reading a number of books about aging. One that I particularly enjoyed is “Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters at the End” by Atul Gawande. Recommended by a reader, this book explores the cultural treatment of aging as it follows numerous couples and individuals on their journey. One of the takeaways from this read is that we need to respect the right of our aging parents to make their own decisions, even if we think they are bad decisions.
Most of us live the journey to aging at two levels: the aging of our parents and our own. The experience of my own parents has given me a lot to consider. At 75, both were full bore much as they had been in their 50s – still living in the family home of 35 years, Dad playing golf and riding a Harley, both of them still hosting dinners for our large family at holidays and traveling to their mountain home in North Carolina. Within two years, my father was wheelchair-bound by spinal stenosis and arthritis. Mom continued to dress him every day like he was going to the golf course, and it took another year for us (four daughters) to come to grips with the fact that Dad was totally dependent on Mom for everything: dressing, bathing, everything. This has been going on for six years now. Most of us have accepted Mom’s steadfast insistence that she will be the caregiver until she dies, while Dad spends every day worrying about who will care for him after she is gone. Dad has barely acknowledged that this is not a forever gig on planet Earth.
These have not been easy years for us as children. There has been a lot of emotional angst over Mom’s loss of quality of life and Dad’s compulsiveness as he deals with confinement. She rarely gets out of the house except to go to the grocery store. (Side note: When the end comes, I want to be at their house. Mom shops like she is feeding the entire neighborhood at every meal. Her cabinets are packed, her freezer full – but many meals they get take-out.) She shops like we are all still living at home. They cling to their routine: morning, read three newspapers, pills, nap, lunch, read, nap, glass of wine, dinner, Fox News or a movie. Dad is hooked on Netflix. They both have iPads and Kindles, the one accommodation to change. Mom texts every grandchild almost every day, all 16 of them, and gives me the weather report for Montana every day.
My initial strategy, as I have to have a strategy, was to try to alleviate the things Mom worried about. We went through and stickered all the items in the house – who gets what and why. I wrote her obituary and Dad’s. She has planned her flowers (all white) and told me what dress she wants to be buried in. She wants “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes at Auburn First United Methodist Church and absolutely no pictures at her funeral other than the one she has selected for the program. They have plots in the fancy new cemetery in town on the highest ground. Dad built golf courses and hates bad drainage. We did this five years ago. And here we are.
They rally when family comes to visit, but it’s easy to tell they relish the return to their routine when we leave. As a family, we weren’t prepared for what we are experiencing with these two people who are in every way remarkable. They are deeply Southern and they don’t want to be a burden, but they want to maintain appearances. Mom has quit going to funerals because “everyone there is old.”
My mother is Dixie and her heart is so big. Every day I read and pray that as a daughter I am doing the “right” thing by them even though I feel totally inadequate and unprepared for this journey.
Liz is fascinated by the various approaches to aging – from denial, to plastic surgery, to running marathons, to depression. Given our current demographics, Liz thinks there is a lot to explore, celebrate and learn from those living and aging in the Flathead Valley. Contact her at Liz@frontierangels.com.