Saturday, May 18, 2013

No place for old men (or women)

One of the conundrums of elder care is the sense that you should do something, anything, to make your parents’ lives better. But whatever you do is likely to actually make them worse.

Take my parents, for example. My mother suffers from dementia: Her memory is failing. Her speech is so unpredictable that even she seems perplexed by what comes out of her mouth. Her moods range from cantankerous to enraged. Yet she remains the boss, and no one can write a check or make a decision without her imprimatur. Which is a problem, since sometimes she likes to tease by withholding it. She’s like a little boy who lobs rocks into a hornets’ nest for the excitement of it. 

And my father falls for it every time. Though he’s by nature a kindly soul, he’s also a mostly rational one, so her perversity sends him into tantrums of frustration. 

My father’s brain is faring somewhat better than my mother’s, but his hearing is so poor that he often gets the wrong end of the stick, which makes him paranoid. His eyes are going too, and he reads with bottle-glass specs and a magnifying glass, which makes for spotty comprehension. 

Mail is a nightmare with its special offers and faux URGENT stamps and the tendency for the important stuff to end up in recycling and the junk to be saved. 

The two of them spend their days feuding with each other and searching for lost letters. 

They have round-the-clock home aides, who are extraordinarily competent and kind. They seemed like salvation five months ago, when they first began. But now that the roof is leaking and the toilet overflows as often as it flushes, they seem insufficient. 

But getting a roofer to repair the flashing or a contractor to replace the too-narrow waste line or anyone to come in to sort the mail would cause overwhelming disruption. They resist the notion of assisted living, and they’re probably right to do so. A change of that magnitude would make them lose what little of their minds they have left. Plus they’d never speak to me again.

So like Californians waiting for the inevitable earthquake, I too wait for the “big one,” the cataclysmic event that will clarify what I should do. Till then I just wait and watch.

My last image of them before I left for the airport after a nine-day visit was my mother dropping food into her lap and onto the floor, as she does at every meal because for some reason she doesn't like to sit close to the table, and my poor old 90-year-old dad, unsteady on his feet, plunging the most godawful sludge from the toilet. He plunged and plunged and plunged, and the bilge didn’t budge. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It sometimes takes a couple hours.”

Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad. See you in a couple months.

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