One day a year or so ago, my father found my mother lying on the bedroom floor where she had fallen while tucking in a sheet. Her collarbone, they discovered at the emergency room, had snapped when she fell. It was an entirely predictable consequence of her combined ailments—Parkinson’s disease and osteoporosis. Something else appeared to have broken in my mother as well, however. Confused and fearful, she took to wandering from room to room at night, looking for intruders. My father, 80 years old and profoundly deaf, felt helpless to deal with the rapidly deteriorating circumstances of their lives.
Since then, my husband and I have moved back to Texas and now live just down the road from my parents. During the past nine months, my father has had three operations, including a triple bypass. Between the two of them, they have seen a total of 12 different doctors over the past year. I have become an expert at reading medical billings, insurance claims, and Medicare statements. My computer’s Web browser is bookmarked for a number of disease and medication sites.
My parents are scrupulous people who wanted to cause their children as little trouble as possible. Since I am the executor of their wills, they long ago gave me copies as well as a key to their safety deposit box. They made sure I knew where to find their insurance policies. I was present when they planned and paid for their funerals. We had all prepared for death. What we hadn’t prepared for was decline. I soon found I needed a crash course in what is almost as inevitable as death—caring for aging parents.
Surprised by Aging
Four in ten Americans presently care for their aging relatives. I would imagine, however, few parents actually sit down with their grown children and talk about what’s going to become of them when they get old and infirm. Once they edge past 60, they find themselves using the stark words “old” or even “elderly” less frequently, even though they may still joke about failing memory and “senior moments.”
At 70, though, they often greet references to Alzheimer’s and Depends with prickly rejoinders that old age comes to us all eventually. Very few children are willing to face, much less force, the issue with either their parents or their siblings. And not simply because they fear being thought ghoulish or insensitive. What we fear goes much deeper.