Not Sissies… Or Paupers

The Little Boy and the Old Man

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean,” said the little old man.”

― Shel Silverstein

A few days ago the picture below sprung up on my screen, from my friend Sue’s Facebook page.  There could have been no better timing for me, for the issue of old age had been sharply thrown in front of me through my own family relationships.  “Old age ain’t no place for sissies” is so true that I think we are mostly inclined to try to ignore this truth.  Another friend’s elderly (and wise) father later added that “it ain’t no place for paupers too“.

Image credit: FB - Sue Fitzmaurice (used with permission)
Image credit: FB – Sue Fitzmaurice (used with permission)

I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened, but sometime in the last perhaps five to seven years, my parents aged to a point where their welfare and health became almost more important than my own.  Remember that I don’t have children, and the most I have had to be concerned about someone else was my cat (who passed away last year).  Now I had elderly parents to worry about.

Until some (usually) undefined date on our adulthood I think it is easy for us to exist in our own worlds, and tending our own needs.  Somehow there’s a kind of “they’ll be okay” approach applied to older parents, and we know (in the back of our minds) that sometime in the future, we might have to pay a bit more attention to their needs.

For me, this probably happened for with regard to my mother’s well-being about seven years ago when she started to have a number of falls.  After that I found that if I was walking with her, I was watching the surface she was walking on for her safety.  It just happened.  She didn’t ask.  Actually she would never ask as she has always been fiercely independent.  I simply found myself looking out for her, consciously wanting to avoid another fall for her.

As for Dad, who died nearly two years ago, my change in attitude toward his well-being came at the time of his heart attack, about four years ago.  Dad was in the city one day and got accidentally knocked over by a cyclist on the footpath.  It triggered a heart attack.

Amazingly Dad drove himself to my home (about 10 minutes away), and came in saying he felt a bit off colour.  I assumed, at most, he might need me to drive him home, as I wasn’t aware of the severity of his symptoms.  He looked fine.  When he eventually told me that he thought I should call an ambulance, I admit I thought he was being dramatic and we would be ‘told off for wasting their time’.

It wasn’t a ‘waste of time’ at all, and it was the first of several ambulances that would come to my home, for Dad in the next few years.  Again, like with mum I found myself wanting to check if Dad was okay.  Sometimes he was, and unfortunately other times he wasn’t at all okay.  Dad later died in my home.

It almost felt like I had lost my parents, and that I had become the parent to them.  I said that once to someone and they told me not to be silly because my parents weren’t children.  That’s not what I meant to imply.  What I was feeling was that I now had responsibility for them.  It just happened, as they aged.

My mother is now 85 and widowed.  She is facing some major surgery in the next few weeks.  Because I have been the main family member to provide daily support for her since Dad died, I now find myself dealing with what is ahead for her.

While I am particularly concerned with how she might cope with the surgery, I find myself missing my Dad even more than usual.  Why?  I admit it is because if he were still alive he’d be the one making decisions and arrangements with her.  I’ve ended up the ‘parent’ (or my therapist tells me ‘the spouse’)and while I will do everything I can for her, I seriously wish I didn’t have this responsibility.  I desperately want to go back to when my parents were young, healthy and going to ‘live forever’.  Yet it’s not like that, and it is really hard.

The reality is that my mother is doing pretty well for her age.  Out her dining room window, in the apartment she has at a retirement village near my home, she can often watch residents of the secure dementia unit (across the car park) pacing.  They’re basically walking in circles, within their confined space.  Confined by fences, walls and locked gates.  It’s hard to watch, even at my age, without wondering, ‘is that how I’ll end up?‘  I don’t need to wonder what my mother thinks.  She’s told me, and told me what to do about it.  Another weight I don’t want to bear.

Yesterday I happened to come across a blog by Chris Curry at Healthy  I quite like his blog about stigma, and was challenged in my thinking by his title, Remembering the Forgotten: Your Response to Dementia.  It seems that most of the elderly end up with some form of memory loss and/or confusion, on a scale of ‘nothing major’ to ‘residing permanently in a secure dementia unit’.

Who would want this for themselves, or for their parents?  Not me, that’s for sure…  but then off-spring don’t generally get a choice of what they will have to deal with.  No one gets a choice.

In his blog Chris suggests that the stigma associated with dementia is perhaps the greatest of all mental illnesses.  I don’t think I had stopped to consider dementia as a mental illness, but it is an illness of the mind.  And how many jokes do we choose to laugh at about dementia and the memory of the elderly?  It’s easy because no one is going to fight back like we might choose to fight against jokes of say, bipolar for example.

It makes me think.  When I say that mental illness is okay and shouldn’t be the subject of stigma, then I need to include in that dementia and other illnesses related to the degeneration of the mind in the elderly.  If we fight for ourselves, then we fight for those who ain’t sissies too.  I wouldn’t like to have to choose one mental illness over another, but I’m sure getting the feeling that old age ain’t much fun.

Maybe that’s pessimistic, but then I look back at the last say, five year of my parents lives and I wouldn’t have wanted their health for anything.  And actually they’ve got off pretty lightly.  I look at the final years of my grandparents too.  I wouldn’t choose that either.  I think that actually the aging process deserves more respect than we often give it.

“In one thing you have not changed, dear friend,” said Aragorn: “you still speak in riddles.”
“What? In riddles?” said Gandalf. “No! For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.” 

―    J.R.R. Tolkien,    The Two Towers


17 thoughts on “Not Sissies… Or Paupers

  1. I’m not near the age yet to have an elderly parent but my own mother is currently looking out for my nana, whose health has deteriorated in the last couple of years. She still refuses to leave her home and is adament that she’ll die before she gets put in a wheel chair despite not being able to walk well haha.
    Good luck to your mother for her surgery 🙂

    1. I suspect that’s a common symptom of denial for many elderly, including my parents. And really I wish for them that they could have the end they want. I guess for some it works out that way, we can just hope. Thanks for your coment. 🙂

  2. John Richardson

    There are milestones in life we never think we’ll reach. You’ve come into some of the hard ones. Therse are the ones that none of us want to think about. My mother passed away 5 years ago this coming Easter. Fortunately, she was living with my sister and her husband at the time. Mother had a lot of issues physically, but until the end she still had quality of life. I don’t think there are any easy answers to these problems and we can’t change the nature of life or of death. All we can do is be thankful for the miracle of life and love the ones around us as much as we can. I do think that some of these milestones help us appreciate what we have, and what we and those we love are losing. Life is bittersweet, but whether is bitter or sweet it is always better with love. I think you’re on the right track Cate.God Bless!

    1. I’m glad your mom had some quality of life until she passed. Losing a parent is so difficult no matter when it happens but to watch suffering without quality and enjoyment but be simply heart breaking. Being thankful for what we have is a very good way to approach it all. Thanks John.

  3. Honey, you know my history and opinion on this subject. I agree with you completely that society attaches yet another stigma to this subject. Writing about it is a very brave thing to do, and I support you completely. When I was going through the same situation with both of my parents, reading something like this may have helped me feel i wasn’t alone – and isn’t that the entire reason people like you and I blog? To connect with others, including people we may not yet know, who are going through the same thing? I applaud you for writing it, honey.

  4. Both my parents are quite old now. Mom dealt with a brain tumor a while back and dad had a really bad flare up of Crohn’s not too long ago. The thing is…they are much stronger than we think. We always see our parents as the strong care takers that when the roles are switched because of illness and we see them weakening it’s our instinct to want protect them. I hope everything will go well with your mom.

    1. Thanks CN. It’s a very weird situation to find myself swaqpping roles, especially after my parents had to watch me battle life for so long. It is an honour to be able to give something back to them… but still bloody hard. 😉

  5. Oh my gosh, i was a care aid for three years, looking after the elderly….that job left me with a terrible fear of growing old. I didn’t know it until i was out the job for awhile, but the amount of suffering and misery i saw was awful.

    1. I can completely understand that. At one stage I was interested in doing social work with the elderly. I like old people but I think I would have got way to depressed. Some of the stuff is just so terrible. Actually I think you did well to last three years.

      1. That makes sense to me. Working in that environment would really take it out of you, even if you were enjoying what you were doing. Actually I can imagine you in that setting. I’m guessing you would have been good at it. 🙂

  6. Pingback: A Band Of Warrior Women | Infinite Sadness… or hope?

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