Now that I’m older and more aware of the cycles of life, I see how critical it is to stay open to care, love and support from family members and from unexpected people and places. I have a small fragmented family and no children, so I can’t expect that care will come from the traditional people. I’m open to receiving love from family and other sources of care and love. I’m also open to giving it where and when it is needed. That’s how I became involved in caring for my good friend’s aging mother last year. The experience has made me think more about aging, and more specifically, how I want to age, because I do believe we have a choice to make.
After a series of accidents and unexplained injuries requiring medical treatment, my friend’s 80-year-old mother needed round the clock support for several months in order to prevent further unexplained harm. Various factors undermined her independence: her inability to continue driving, extreme memory degradation and physical limitations, stemming from inflamed joints. Because of her impaired memory, no one could account for periods of time in which she went missing; objects disappeared from her home and purse. She created fantasies about her adventures and repeated her fantasy narratives constantly. Most of this was about medication, but trying to manage and assess the cause of the problem was challenging. For one, she didn’t want help—she was outright belligerent at times and did not want anyone around except for her daughter, who she asked for constantly. Two, she could not remember from moment to moment what was going on. Three, she was often irritable, gruff and occasionally angry, which was often connected to over-consumption of coffee, diet or personality. Notwithstanding, we joined the team of community members ready to pitch in.
To care for her, I resorted to tactics, not all successful and not all tactful. I spent time in the car, waiting for her to show up; we pretended to renovate our home so we could sleep in her house. Eventually, we fell into a routine. We ate lunch together and read magazines and newspapers together, gossiping about local news and the celebrities, and found in the midst of it all, that we shared a love of gardening and floral arrangement. We drank tea and watched the light change in the afternoons.
The things that were a hard for her were about her perception of giving up of her freedom; independence is indispensable, and she is a fighter. When she fought me, I knew she was fighting to be the resourceful, energetic and bossy lady she wants to be. The problem was, we were working, all of us, to keep her independent, safe and outgoing. But I was an interloper in her private domain, the earwig in her dahlias—I wasn’t wanted. I was a reminder that our society seldom lets us age with dignity.
She’s better now. Her medication doesn’t cause her problems; she’s adjusted to walking to places in the neighborhood rather than driving everywhere. This experience made me thinks about what it will take to remain in our home with the familiar things we love as we grow frail. It makes sense to fight for liberties, but we have to know when to entrust ourselves to others, when to open the door to friendship and kindness.
I sense the places where it will be difficult for me. I have to let go having things done my way, now. I have to give in to the yielding part of myself, to let others do things their way, even in my space. I never thought about my control issues as a potential hindrance to relationship, but I can see that if I allow my perspective to get entrenched, no one will ever be able to wash my dishes, cook my meals or launder my clothes as well as I can, and those are the exact openings for a friend to step in and lend a hand with the least intrusion.
Instead, I’m going to try to infuse my day with more mindfulness. I’m going to breathe when it’s not as I would have it and just say, “Thank you.” So what if it’s not my way? At least someone else is sharing my load.
I have to learn to “yes, please,” while there’s very little at stake, so when my time comes, I can say, “Yes,” with grace and dignity and let someone do for me what I’m willing to do for others.