An Old Problem

One of my high school friends, reconnected after a long drifting apart, told me that his mother, when she finally let go of her senses, found a peace with life and a friendliness that she certainly never had when she was younger. It was as if, he said, she forgot to be that person that had always been so angry with the world, so in need of controlling it.

My favorite aunt, the one who was always My Aunt, has also recently let go but she let go of the happy persona that she had maintained for so many years. She had always been smiling and laughing, centered, grounded, despite the abuse she suffered as a child and the loneliness as an adult, too afraid, I suspect, to ever connect with someone romantically. She looks the same now as in the photos of us from another time, but her mind has left. She nods and smiles as if she remembers you, but she doesn’t. And the anger comes out, a rage in being contained in the facility which cares for her. A rage at the men in the facility, whom she, from time to time, physically smites. And then we have to find another facility for her. My sweet aunt, my role model, my refuge, is fading away, replaced by a stranger that her sister has to tend like a child, wiping her butt, shaving her legs, putting on her finger nail polish.

My father, too, is in a facility now. His Parkinson’s has become too much for his wife to care for on her own. He is still sweet, she says, without the anger that others sometimes get. But his hearing loss has grown stronger. He cannot speak any more. He cannot read or write. And his short term memory is gone.

My mother went back to the emergency room last night. She was having trouble breathing and, yes, her oxygen levels were too low, her blood pressure ridiculously high. They checked her in for observation and, when she couldn’t swallow food, put her on a feeding IV. My sweet husband has been Skyping with her every night, taking her through 10 minutes of PT exercises by phone, then handing her over to me for a few minutes of How Was Your Day? She can do countless reps of the simple exercises, so her strength is there, and her cognitive function is still strong. But the anorexia and the depression, the isolation and loneliness are overtaking her. All she does all day is sit in her armchair and nap. She has no appetite. She eats a few bites then feeds the rest to her dog or leaves it for later. And she refuses to admit that the problems she’s having are emotional and that there is a way out.

These stories are not unusual. I’ve told them and others before. My friends all share similar stories. The father who had a stroke; his wife is now caring for him – although he has recovered much of his strength and mobility, he refuses to recognize his limitations and she has to protect him from doing things he used to be able to do and can’t anymore – and for her elderly mother, who lives alone several miles away. Too stubborn and too independent to move in with a family member; too frail to be left alone for long; too removed to keep up with the pace of change in the world.

I am sure these stories have always been around – twenty years ago, I was visiting my elderly grandparents monthly, trying to fill a gap created when my mother went off to see the world. And there are other stories, too – the ladies my mother’s age, my father’s age, who are in my Qi Gong class, and outlast me three days a week. They still work, at least part time, and are still active socially. They remain engaged with the world, sometimes enviously so, going to Broadway shows and organ concerts, learning new dishes to make at home.

The volume of stories will only increase as the years pass, as the Boomers grow older. Fiercely independent earlier, they are fighting dependence now. And the system is not ready for them. Not ready with the army of caretakers that will be required if they stay in their own homes; professional caretakers are expensive; the informal caregivers that fill the gap bring their own problems. Nursing homes carry a stigma – well-deserved in some cases – and feel so clinical: even the best I’ve seen feel like living in a hospital, don’t allow for pets. And, already stressed, even high-income families struggle. Even if money isn’t an obstacle, how do you persuade parents to move in with you, how do you make room for them, how do you handle the stress on your children, how do you get parents to allow the help that you need when you and your husband are both working and can’t be there all the time, how do you get them to form and continue social engagement outside your family?

I have written before of the cri de coeur of a classmate in graduate school when discussing Boomer vs. X vs. Y (as Millennials were known in those days, back before they refused to be defined in relation to the previous generation). Confronted by the assumption that Gen X was obsessed by money, she cried out, “Yes, because we know we’re going to be stuck taking care of your elderly ass, and will need every cent we can get.”

I worry that we will, as a society, face this same attitude. Will Millennials watching the financial resources, the time, the patience required to care for Boomers, resent that loss and, when my own generation starts to grow old, deny us the same? This is a problem we need to solve before then, a problem that is crying out for a solution.

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