Conversations with Friends About Our Parents and the Stages of Deterioration, Our Bodies, and Our Children’s Lives
May 26, 2023
Conversations with friends lately have invariably steered, at some point, to our parents. For most of us, it’s our mothers and mothers-in-law, though for some it’s concern for both parents, and for a younger friend it’s about a grandmother. Mothers are in the process of deteriorating, some are bedridden. The body seems to falter first, but, to differing degrees, the mind also shows signs of aging, where the range is from “not quite herself at times” to “who is that woman?” Maybe not all the time, but it does seem that once the walk becomes focused on maintaining balance, a shuffle ensues, and then the mind, too, exhibits a kind of shuffle.
Fathers, if they’re around (for most of us they’re not), remain stubborn, thinking that nothing has changed since they were young men, responsible for supporting an entire family even if they are now in their 90s and their children are grandparents. These guys need to finally release their grip and realize that the world will not collapse if they are no longer their own version of Master of the Universe. A bright spot is the father who’s finding independence in a wheelchair.
Our parents are in their 80s and 90s. Hurrah for long-life! Our hope for each of them is that they continue to enjoy life, and not simply hold on to the drudgery of life becoming an extremely long, super ultra-marathon.
Depending on a parent’s situation, we are involved in varying degrees of caregiving. One friend and her husband lived with her mother-in-law for years, most of their time devoted to her care. And others, like me, listen with dread to those stories, grateful that there is experience and wisdom being shared, though often coming from a place of frustration and despair, and heard with fear and trepidation.
Listening to those stories of active caregiving and actively arranging for caregiving help is heartbreaking. But to see how taxing it is to constantly make arrangements and deal—battle—with the bureaucracy turning a normally sane, organized woman into a harridan, is disheartening. We have been or still are professionals, most of us teachers, most with children of our own. We have spent our lives concerned for others and acting on that concern, and now when our children are starting to find their way, we are still stuck at home.
Here we are: middle-aged women who are starting to see our own slide into senior living, who want to be out and about, vacationing and lunching with the ladies, but we’re still tied down, to some degree, by the compassion that has always guided us.
But here we are, too, talking about ourselves and how we are also starting to see our own things falling apart. Skin cancer. Breast cancer. Vertigo. Rheumatoid arthritis. Macular degeneration. Glaucoma. We take care of ourselves. But there’s so much that healthy living and exercise can do.
We are determined to live our lives to the fullest, doing what we can to take care of everyone and ourselves. But what does that mean? Do you postpone trips or, as a friend does, pay for travel insurance just in case a trip needs to be cancelled. We can’t wait around for the generation before us to go. But we can’t ignore their needs and existence. When I told older daughter that I was thinking of going on a trip to Spain and Portugal, her first thought was if it would be ok to leave Grandma on her own. My daughter asked me if I was going to be an irresponsible daughter. It’s not necessarily the travel that I needed, as the time to enjoy myself with no responsibilities.
At the end of an essay, there is a culminating thought that feels like a proper conclusion. Today, I don’t have one. Everything feels so open, unknown—lifelike. Perhaps there is only gratitude, flexibility, and love that guides us—but this also needs to be self-directed. And as I continue to sit here with these thoughts, I realize that this unknown and uncertain time reminds me of early adulthood, when there were so many decisions to be made. Then, I was mainly guided by my own intuition, desires, and fears. Now, there is guidance. There is this point in my history, which means there is what to look back upon. There are friends’ lives, showing how things work out in different scenarios. There is the understanding that looking ahead and looking back don’t give answers or even a roadmap.
But I do know that I’m grateful to my friends for being a forum for sharing thoughts as we each deal with what we deal, helping me understand my situation and myself.