By Robin Reynolds
My mother is 92 and lives alone with three hours of in-home assistance daily. To those on the outside, she is the definition of independence strong, stubborn and for the most part, quite clear-headed. She still dresses fashionably and wears appropriate makeup, though macular degeneration has made these tasks and many other routines such as meal preparation, more challenging, if not impossible for her.
Yet, what people don't see are the things that are only shown to a daughter-the stubborn pride that feeds her ever increasing isolation, the fear of looking pathetic, and the angry frustration and shame when the body fails even when the mind does not.
Many years ago, my mother made a point of saying to my siblings and me that she didn't ever want to be a burden to us, but as she has aged, her denial has grown. I have been called to her home in the middle of the day and the middle of the night for emergencies that range from-"I can't find my heating pad and I need it now!" to a neighbor who found her in the gutter after she fell taking the garbage out in the rain.
I have patiently and willingly helped in these large and small crises, but as our visits have become more about solving her problems than about visiting about our lives, my frustration has grown. Regardless of the magnitude of these mishaps, I am expected to respond promptly with little regard for how stressful these episodes are for my family and me.
After finding medication on the floor, nearly setting her house on fire by overcooking something in the microwave and continual falls that landed her in the hospital, I pleaded with my mother and my siblings (who do not live in the same state) to support our mother's transition to assisted living where she could find the company of people her own age and where access to 24/7 help is just a push of a button away. But years ago, my sister promised our mother that she would not put her in a home. Yet now, she admits that our mother's next step will probably be into skilled nursing care.
To me, this scenario is much more like the traditional nursing home that my mother is trying to avoid rather than being in the home-like environment of assisted living. I understand that no senior living situation is perfect, but at least, some of the minor missing- heating-pad, phone-is-off-the-hook and meal-prep crises could be mitigated without my intervention.
Still, the everyday calamities or even the disagreement about in-home versus assisted living care is not the real issue. The issue is that my mother has no plan. She says, "when the time comes, I'll make that decision." But the truth is "when the time comes," she may not be cognizant of the decisions that need to be made and at a time of extreme stress, the decisions will be left to her children who have not agreed on much thus far. My therapist tells me that it is more often the norm that the elderly have no care plans and for there to be intense disagreement among family members as to how to handle things. When people have made end-of-life plans, she says, "it's like a breath of fresh air."
It might sound funny, but I really hope I can approach aging like our Airedale Terrier, Max. As Max aged, he encountered a number of health challenges. He got a melanoma on his paw and underwent chemotherapy. He suffered from disk disease, which resulted in the continual loss of his bowels and a need to wear diapers. He also developed a dog form of Alzheimer's, during which I would find him in a corner, staring at the wall and panting in "sun-downing" episodes.
Nonetheless, there wasn't one day when Max didn't wake up and wag his tail. No matter how hard it was for him, whenever we would come home, he would always struggle to his feet to nudge our knees and kiss our hands. He never resisted going to the vet or taking his medicine. He trusted that we were caring for him the best we knew how and he was always happy and grateful.
Even on the last day of his life, when the pain got so great and the vet arrived at our home to help Max pass, Max seemed to know that we were there to help him and his plan was to make it as easy on us as possible. He kissed us, sighed deeply and let go with grace.
As my husband and I have dealt with the ever-increasing demands of our aging parents, we have vowed between us that we will not leave these agonizing decisions to our only child. Still, I wonder if we boomers will truly use our experiences with our aging parents to make different choices or whether like my mother's intention to "not be a burden" will be supplanted by our own stubborn denial and selfish desires?
I can only hope that I will take my cue from Max-that no matter what challenges I face, I will get up each day and wag my tail. And in the end, I want to die like a dog-not expecting anything, but happy and grateful for every kindness I receive. That's my plan and I'm sticking to it-thanks to Max.
Robin Reynolds is the author of Life to the MAX: Maxims for a Great Life by a Dog named Max, an award-winning celebration of the life story and life lessons learned from her family's Airedale Terrier rescue, Max. An Airedale Terrier lover since youth, Robin lives in Tempe, AZ with her husband, teenage son, and two Airedales-Amber and Krissy.