Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Things I've Learned From Elder Care

I hope that somewhere along the way I picked up some knowledge that will help others who follow me. I would like to share some of these tidbits with you over the next few days, beginning with Tip No. Ten: Love Thy Brother!

No matter what your relationship with your sibling(s) is, if you have any, get down on your knees and say a prayer of thanks to your higher power that you do. And then go and nurture that relationship with your sibling because they are going to be the ones who help you get through taking care of your elderly parents. Not your spouse, not your kids (probably), not even your best friend. You'll need that best friend for emotional support, but he or she cannot and should not be counted to be there to help change diapers or spoon feed your relative. And, when those really hard decisions have to be made, those life or death moments, it will be family that can help make them. For my part, I knew since I was 11 that I would face all of this on my own, and I have dreaded this time ever since. Not the actual physical handling of Mother and her affairs, although for reasons that I will enumerate later that has been a challenge, but rather the weight of the singular responsibility that falls to me with no one to share it with.

When I was 11 my grandfather fell down the stairs while staying at my Aunt Eleanor's house in Madison, Wisconsin, and Dad got an urgent call to come as soon as possible. Now my grandfather had a thing for falling down stairs; I remember him taking a nasty tumble down our basement stairs before, and Aunt Eleanor's stairs were carpeted and much less lethal, but this time was different for some reason, and it was pretty clear this was likely to be a final vigil. I was yanked out of school, and we made a hurried trek from Bozeman to Madison to join Eleanor and Dad's other sister, Gladys, and their families at Grandfather's bedside. For the next two weeks, a throng of family members hovered around the hospital while my grandfather languished in a coma. I amused myself by making friends with an elderly woman who was in the hospital recuperating from something or other and hanging out with her all day or sitting in the waiting room reading. But, I was watching too. Watching how the family supported one another emotionally, helped one another making decisions and arrangements, spelling one another so they could get some rest or something to eat. I knew right then that my parents would someday end up in a bed like that, and there would be no throng of people around to help me. I would be totally on my own. I was already pretty unhappy about my only child status for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was I wasn't strong enough to punch kids in the face for calling me a spoiled only child, but it hit hyperdrive on that trip. Add to it the side trip we took back to Pennsylvania to see my Aunt Sally, who was suffering from breast cancer at the time. Mom's other two sisters came up while we were there along with some of my older cousins, and I remember one night in particular where the sisters sat around the kitchen table dissing on their mother. They told several amusing stories at Grandmother's expense about growing up, almost all of which I have long since forgotten. What I remember was the easy camaraderie they shared. I think they were trying to distract Sally actually. She was at a point where most foods made her sick, but they had that shared life experience to use as a tool. And then, when first my grandfather and then my aunt finally passed away, there was a ready-made support system to help grieve.

Of course, there is also the ugly side of family. When grandfather's will was read, Dad, the only surviving son, was awarded Grandfather's railroad watch and a gold ring. He also got the portrait of his mother that I have mentioned before. Eleanor wanted the portrait apparently, but Gladys had her sights set on the watch as the eldest. The fight that ensued between Gladys and my dad was bitter. I am not entirely sure, but she may have sued Dad over it. She certainly threatened to. They never spoke a civil word again. Neither Mother nor I heard from Gladys or any of her family when Dad died, but Mother became convinced that Eleanor switched the watch out from the bell jar where it resided on our mantle when she came for the memorial service. Maybe she did, probably she didn't (and who really cares if she did), but the very fact Mother worried about it indicated that wounds opened up 22 years before had not healed. Then there is the famous feud Mother and her sister Merle began shortly after Dad died, but that's another story all in and of itself.

But, none of that nasty family melodrama dissuaded me from my firmly held belief that being an only child totally sucks. So, tell your brother or sister that you love them, even if you don't, and do it right now!

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