One day you will be there. Right now, it’s almost impossible to imagine. It seems they live in another time and don’t even begin to understand you. They’re practically alien, slow, fixed and ridiculous in their thinking at times, and lost in themselves. Repetitive and self focused; talking to them can be a chore. The surprise is – they are you. I am of course referring to the elderly.
You are mainly young and vital and your dotage isn’t something you even want to consider. There are many decades in front of you to insulate you from such morbid thoughts. The reality is they’re you, inasmuch as yesterday they were also young and full of fire. Statistics indicate that by 2056, the over 65’s will double, in Canada (for example), to represent 25% of the population. This same group is three times as likely to live beyond the age of 80. It will be women that carry the heavier responsibility, with 20% greater longevity than men and forming the highest proportion of carers. Consequently, by the time women need care, it’s probable that they’ll be moved to a care facility.
Five years ago I received a phone call from my father to tell me that my mother was dying. I was living in Scotland and my parents were in Canada. My mother had been placed in a care home by my father a couple of years before this. She was diagnosed with dementia and two years on, her health was relatively good. I took the next flight out, trying to understand how she could have deteriorated so rapidly. What I saw when I arrived confirmed the worst, she was barely hanging on to life. It was clear that everyone involved, my father included, had given up on her. He wanted to discuss a memorial service and other details. I chose to spend what time was left with her instead.
Those few days, and the next two weeks were a shocking revelation. When I was alone with her I talked, held her hand and hoped that a little of what I was saying would reach her. Food and water had been withdrawn on the doctor and my father’s instructions. The more I questioned them, the less sense any of it made. She didn’t open her eyes, speak or move but I sat with her. On the second day I asked her if she really wanted this, to die. I told her that if she wanted to live, I would fight for her. I asked her to squeeze my hand if she wanted to live. Up until then, it was like she was unconscious but suddenly, I felt a definite grip – her hand was saying yes.
I started caring for her then, giving her water first, a little liquid, after a while bringing her smoothies and simple soup. One week later my mother was sitting up, eating, talking and within a couple of days after that, walking with assistance. She still had dementia, mixed up the many foreign languages that roamed about her head, smiled at everyone and got confused about where she was, but she was very much alive. I dismissed her doctor from her care, found out she’d been given a cocktail of heavy and unnecessary medications, and let everyone know that I was watching. They said it was a miracle. There is nothing miraculous about treating someone like their life is worthwhile.
This could be you. As of 2008 there were 4,845 residential care facilities in Canada. For a substantial number of people, this will be their final home. There are well financed, superbly run care homes but they are in the smallest minority. Most are holding areas designed to hasten life with policies to support those caring, not the vulnerable, cared for. My father is at a different stage and this has been a revelatory experience too. He is able to care for himself but needs company and support. People in this age group are disenfranchised and unheard. I couldn’t count the number of times an elderly person has told me they feel ignored, as if people look through them.
This is where we’re all going. The most valuable thing I can do for my father is to listen to his stories, have coffee and lunch with him, and do something to assuage his loneliness. It’s not easy. It would do us well to consider the seeds we’re planting today that will become our future. My father was never a man for gardening. Now, aside from me he is alone. He always was a self centered, insecure, destructive character and growing older hasn’t taken any of this away. What qualities and circumstances we cultivate will grow. I’m not a saint and frequently I come away from a visit with my father irritable and frustrated.
Last week he astounded me with crass conversational heights and a bullish desire to get a reaction. My teenage son happened to be there and it was all I could do to keep the two teenagers from coming to blows – one who is 83 and knows everything and the other 16, also filled with certainty. It’s a fallacy that growing old brings wisdom or sweetness. The seeds of bitter greens do not produce sweet potatoes. At those times I try to see the bigger picture. If I need to put some distance between us, and retreat to sanity, I no longer beat myself up. I do what I can, and that’s all any of us can do.
I remember that I had a home, clothing and physical comfort growing up, thanks to my father’s efforts. I remember that he has always said I’m the apple of his eye. I remember that he’s doing what he can too.
I’m not trying to beat you up either but would leave you with some kernels of experience: consider what you’re cultivating because that’s what will take root, be an advocate for those who need it as you’ll be them one day, and do what you can, something is better than nothing at all.
Later this week I’ll have overcome the debacle of our last meeting and I’ll see my father. I know I’ll probably even laugh about it one day. We’ll have coffee and he’ll talk and I’ll hear some old stories. For a little while he’ll recall what it is to be young and full of piss and vinegar. For a while, he’ll be a little less alone. If I’m lucky, maybe someone will do the same for me one day.
(Statistics cited from Statistics Canada, ‘Eldercare: What we know today,’ a study undertaken by Kelly Cranswick and Donna Dosman, for full report click here )
© S. Marian, Oct. 2, 2012