Growing Old Together

Imagine being married to the same individual for 51 years. Now, imagine your spouse has died. Your children are grown and live in other parts of the city, or in another state. You go home from the funeral, and the sense of loss is overwhelming. Oh, the kids call. They visit and spend some quality time with you. But at the end of the day, at the end of the visit, they are gone. And you are once again alone in the home you shared with your lover for 51 years.

You are older, so maybe you aren’t as able to do the things you once did. You don’t see as well; you can’t drive at night anymore; you can feel your body beginning to break down. You are lonely, and you are growing old alone.

Do we children of older parents have a responsibility to them? That’s a silly question. Of course we do. The Bible says it this way: “…if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in their own family and to make some return to their parents, for this is acceptable in the sight of God.” (1Timothy 5:4)

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Sometimes we live close enough we can visit them several times a week, and they are able to stay in their own home. Many times, our parents become ill and need nursing care, so we find the best facility we can for them and pray they are comfortable for their last years on earth. Often, the best option is to have them live with us. The idea, of course, is to be sure they are cared for and they aren’t lonely.

I read a book recently titled When I Married My Mother, by Jo Maeder. In so many ways, I identified with this woman and her relationship with her mother. It was interesting and a bit unnerving. I finished the book, and then I asked God, “Are you going to make me let my mother live with me?”

I have to be honest with you, the thought of my mother living in my home makes my stomach hurt. We have pretty much worked through the terrible past, and I understand fully she can no more change the way she lived her life than I can change my own past. It’s the present that is rough. We don’t get along very well, at all. I don’t do manipulation well, and she is a master at it. That’s all I’ll say about that, because who knows what the future holds, and I don’t want to make it more difficult than it may be.

Dave’s mom came to live with us a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t something we were even considering two months ago. If you’d asked us then about the possibility of her coming to live with us, we’d have said that wouldn’t happen. Reba was getting around pretty good, and she’d always said she would never live with her children.

But something happened that the doctors can’t see on MRI’s. She either had a mild stroke, or she just got really, really tired of being lonely. Whatever happened, she lost her short-term memory and was often agitated. She would call Dave and just cry because she had to ask questions about how to do the simplest thing. Since she’s moved in, she and Dave have had the same discussion about wills, money, property, etc., every single days—sometimes several times a day. She can’t remember if she’s taken her medicine, and it makes her cry because she can’t remember. We gave her a pill case to put them in, but she keeps forgetting to do that.

Just a while ago, I was making a grocery list based on a couple of dishes she wants to cook for us. She told me several ingredients, stopped and stared out the window and then asked me, “What am I giving you ingredients to make again?”

But what concerns me more than what she can’t remember, is what she vividly remembers that never actually happened. For instance, she asked me what I did with the cake in the refrigerator.

“What cake?” I asked.

“The one in the big pan.” She replied. “Somebody had taken some of the icing off of a piece, but it wasn’t me.”

After assuring her several times we have not had any cake in the refrigerator since she’s been here, she started crying. The things she’s remembering are not happening. I suppose it’s possible that past memories are recycling through, but the certainty she has about certain events—and the fact that they haven’t happened—gives me cause for concern.

My friend, George Parler recently posted on his Facebook page: Most people don’t like hearing the words, “growing old,” but for me the phrase, “growing old together,” has a nice ring to it. It defines a lifetime of love in the midst of the variable turbulence of life. No, growing old doesn’t bother me, but growing old alone scares me.

Our initial goal was to get Reba here with us to help her with her loneliness and to help her begin to thrive again, instead of sitting depressed in her apartment all day. We felt that her being with other people regularly would help her regain some of her old self. Since she’s been here, though, it’s become clear this is what needed to happen, because of this new development in her memory. She’s only been here two weeks. She may begin to thrive and regain some of her old self. Or she may be her old self now with a few glitches in her memory track. We do believe we have done the right thing.

Truthfully, it’s strange having her in the house all the time, and we are still working on getting used to this. I’m sure it’s just as strange for her, too.

The Myth of the Empty Nest

empty-nest_2356878 Several years ago I wrote about the joys of empty nesting. Less than a year after I wrote that article, the empty nest was interrupted. Had to be done. People’s welfare was at stake. Nine months ago, our nest emptied out again. And just this week we once again gave birth to that baby called empty nest no longer. Because family always comes home. Because life is full of lies we tell ourselves, like someday you will have an empty nest and will be free to travel the world in a camper and have the health to do so!

Just this week, Dave and I moved his mom into our home. We fixed up the front room–formerly known as Claudette’s study–with paint, a new rug and emptied out closets, and we moved her in. She’s 84 now, but still able to motivate on her own, though wobbly at times. She gets confused and forgets what was just said and asks the same question multiple times. She was living in her own home, but because she was getting feeble, she quit driving and she just got lonely. Her loneliness is as much on her as it is on anybody. She doesn’t really like a lot of people, and doesn’t return their offers of friendship, so she didn’t have her “gang” of folks to hang out with. Except family. Her kids tried to keep up with her as much as possible; and the grand kids called and talked to her on occasion, as well.

Her confusion is what began to cause us some concern. Before she quit driving, she had a couple of bump-ups with her car. She thought the car was in reverse, and drove forward into a retaining wall (thank heavens it was there!) and another time into a fence and scratched up her bumper. She began calling her kids constantly, asking the same question again and again, and she cried a whole lot. It was concerning.

It was never Reba’s intention to move in with one of her children. She always said, “Just put me in a nursing home. I don’t want to live with my kids.” Yet, when Dave posed the question to her about coming to live with us, she took a few days to think about it and then responded with a gracious, “Yes.” So here we are. Five days into our new living arrangements. Too early to tell how it will all work out; too early to tell if she will need a sitter during the day while we work; too early to tell a lot of things. But I believe it was the right thing to do. That’s not to say that someday down the road, we won’t need to do something different. Her health will dictate a lot of that. We’re taking it one step at a time.

Many years ago, it was common practice that families lived together in multi-generational homes. That was just how things worked. Senior family members stayed with their children until their deaths. Many times, the younger kids stayed on even after getting married, so they could work and save and eventually buy a little place; or they simply added on to the family home and built themselves a little space of their own. It was what it was, and it seems to have worked. Unfortunately, because of the world in which we live, family dynamics have changed and what we “want” to do is sometimes overshadowed by what we “must” do.

The day may come when it’s not safe for Reba to be here by herself. Then we will have to examine all our options and figure out what’s best for her. Nursing homes are not bad things. People are not bad people for placing elderly family members in them. We all have to do what is best for our family dynamics. No guilt trips. Just doing what’s right for everyone involved. For now, it’s with us. In the future, who knows?

Since You’ve Been Gone

Since you’ve been gone, I spend my days full of uneasiness– uneasy because I don’t know if I’m taking care of things the right way; uneasy because I don’t know if I’m grieving properly; uneasy because I don’t know how to live without you. I walk through time in a daze, and the only real emotion I feel is this never-ending, dull, gray, terrible, lonely unease.

I look into their eyes, and they avert theirs. They don’t know what to say, so we sit in awkward silence. I try to talk about you, and they change the subject. As if it hurts them to mention your name. But I need to talk about you. I need to say your name. I need to hear what they remember.

I need to remember; always remember.

Maybe life will get easier with passing time. Maybe they will let me say your name and not freak out. Maybe I will stop feeling guilty because I’m still here and you aren’t. Maybe.

But right now I’m living with this uneasiness.