The situation of being a caregiver for an elderly loved one is quite challenging. And while many feel fulfilled in their abilities to support a family member during the difficulties of aging, it is full of moments when all one needs is someone to vent to. I remember being away for my anniversary a few years ago, and lo and behold, I met someone who was struggling with the decision of hospice or not for his 90 plus old father. And as a hospice chaplain, I was able to help by listening to the strangers story. Below is a post on meeting caregivers wherever one goes. Most interesting to me are the doctors who opened up to the writer, who was a patient at the time. Everyone needs support, and sometimes any one of us could be the one providing the listening ear.
We Are EverywhereBy JANE GROSS
Each year, the numbers get bigger. There are 42 million family caregivers now, a cohort that includes more than just adult children watching over their aged parents, although they predominate. Tens of millions of us are engaged in this hard, transformative task; this dance in which who leads and who follows changes by the minute; this time in life that can’t be over quickly enough and that we want to last forever; this labor of love.
Tens of millions of us, hiding in plain sight.
One recent day, in the space of just a few hours, I came across a half-dozen of you. You had haggard faces. You reminded me of me when my mother was still alive. I was utterly self-absorbed, dealing with the kind of medical mini-crisis that seems an unavoidable part of being 64. (My mother used to say she was sick of old-lady conversations that amounted to “an organ recital.” I get it, Ma, now I get it.) I was busy running from doctor to doctor, being poked and prodded, making decisions about this surgeon or that. Family caregivers weren’t foremost in my mind, but you kept crossing my path.
Three of the doctors I saw that day — it was a long day — were at the throw-up-your-hands point in dealing with their own recalcitrant 90-something mothers. One told me he couldn’t bear to use his connections again to get her in to see a prominent specialist when he knew she would fault everything about the visit. It was just dawning on him that her behavior resulted from watching the reins of control slip away, from knowing that what was left of her life wasn’t going to be a whole lot of fun.
Another of my doctors was laugh-out-loud funny about a mother halfway across the country, whom she was supporting financially. The mother had called adult protective services to report her daughter for elder abuse. Her mother is cognitively intact but has always relished the good-daughter, bad-daughter routine, and my doctor had always been the bad daughter. As she had been thousands of miles away at the time of the alleged infraction, her mother’s was the equivalent of a crank call.
Yes, it was funny, in its own way, and yes, funny is a good defense when the stress meter is high. But there’s no chance a conversation with an adult protective services worker could have been as jolly as she made it sound, certainly not in the middle of a workday.
I asked the third doctor, whose mother lives in a continuing care retirement community, how it was going. She simply said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
A friend was driving me from appointment to appointment — her choice, not her duty – and I was grateful. She did it as a daughter might, but without the emotional baggage. At least she didn’t have to buckle my seat belt, as I did for my mother, or help me out of the car, get my walker from the trunk and unfold it at each stop.
It isn’t how either of us would have chosen to spend a gorgeous autumn afternoon, but it wasn’t awful. On the way, we stopped at her internist’s office so she could get a flu shot. The receptionist had a long tale of woe, another mother-daughter caretaking story. I was glad I’d waited in the car, to fend off meter maids — this story I heard secondhand. I was thinking about lunch and comfort food to take home.
What better place for comfort food, for a Jewish girl from Brooklyn and Long Island, than Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King, a mecca for lox and bagels on the Upper West Side of Manhattan? There’s one counter for takeout orders of nova, sturgeon, whitefish, chopped liver and the like; another counter for bagels, cream cheese, containers of matzo ball soup, noodle kugel. I chose the latter.
Waiting on me was a young man of perhaps 25. He worked full time, it turned out, carried a full load of classes at college and was the sole caretaker of his 88-year-old grandfather, who had had cataract surgery the day before. I marveled at his maturity and fortitude.
As we talked, the woman in line behind me cleared her throat, conspicuously, several times. Enough of the chit-chat, she finally told me.
How rude, I thought. But then I turned around and saw her face, stiffened against tears. She pointed to an old couple behind her, a 21st-century Grant Wood tableau. The man, clearly her father, sat in a wheelchair, eyes cloudy in the way of the blind. Next to him was her mother, well put together, standing erect with only a cane. But a furious burst, typical of some people with Alzheimer’s disease, was seconds from her lips.
The daughter’s eyes welled. I took my package, patted her shoulder, mumbled commiseration.
“Mine is gone eight years,’’ I told her. “Sometimes I get exhausted just remembering it. Sometimes I miss her.’’
Jane Gross is The New Old Age’s founding blogger and author of “A Bittersweet Season: Caring For Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves” (Knopf).