I am one of four sisters. The youngest and the furthest away from our parents. Growing up people would refer to me as “the baby” and mom would swoop in like an eagle – wings flapping and correct them in her unyielding tone, “Nooooo, she’s the youngest”. At the time, mom was busy raising four independent girls, and the term “baby” was reserved solely for those in diapers, which we were all out of by age two.
As in most families, we each had our textbook roles as siblings: the oldest – reliable and overly cautious (as kids we barely glimpsed at the Grand Canyon as she herded us like a Border Collie away from the edge), the middle sisters – a tad rebellious, with large social circles (probably helped that they had a cool 1957 Ford truck to drive), and me fun-loving and
easy-going perhaps a bit lazy. Now that mom and dad are 84 and 87, respectively, (AMAZING! I KNOW!) life has changed a bit and we have adjusted our roles.
That being said, when it came to caring for them as they waltz hand in hand through their later years, I was not the daughter to step up to the helm and guide the ship. There’s something called “Seagull Syndrome” where the sibling who lives furthest away tends to visit, poop on everyone’s ideas about caretaking and fly home. I try not to do that, but rather be the “fun uncle” type daughter who says yes, to everything (“Yes, cookies for breakfast counts…yes, we can binge watch Blue Bloods until midnight”) and then I head home.
Thankfully with three sisters, and the Catholic faith as our north star, one of my sisters retired from her job and moved back home to care for them. With a Master’s Degree in psychology, 30 years of experience managing engineers, and a heart of gold, she was clearly qualified and has made what is possibly the noblest of all jobs look easy. She’s the Helen Keller of caretaking. She knows where mom hurts and how to heal, she knows when dad needs to go for a drive or use the wood splitter, and she knows exactly when they both need a nap. Although they both say they “don’t nap”.
As a bunch (think Brady’s with attitude), we each contribute what we can. My oldest sister is always on call and will drop anything to be present. Outsourcing as needed, and sending Pedialyte, Boost, or whatever is needed via amazon. My sister closest to me in age will jump in and clean, manage all outside work, call daily, and do more between 10 pm and 2 am than most people do all day. We all have our jobs, whether it’s calling to tell them stories of our day, making sure mom takes her medicine or dad sits down to rest. But my sister, the primary caretaker has developed a skillful management of self and our parents and for that, we are all grateful.
How does she do it?
Always reading and learning, she finds the perfect balance between caretaking and respecting our parents’ need for independence. In the book, Being Mortal, author Atul Gawande posits that whether a teen or a senior, they both value autonomy and crave the feeling of purpose and worth every day. So, when Dad, who recently stopped driving wants to drive the truck from the front yard to the back, we let him buckle up and go…better to help him remember he still can, even if just a little bit.
Equally, when mom wants to give the next-door dog, Ned leftovers through the fence (even though he’s been fed), she takes care of dear old Ned. I read a story about Bill Thomas, director of a nursing home in NY who brought in pets for the residents to nurture because he says giving people something to care for makes them more active and alert. Thus my parent’s surplus of suet, bird seed, dog bones, and corn.
Being part of the “Silent Generation” our parents are workers. Raised in the Depression Era, everything is recycled, reused, repurposed, and appreciated. Growing up wood piles were (and still are) precious commodities, prom dresses were made by mom (!) and going out to eat at “The Royal Fork” Buffet was a big deal.
Luckily Dad starts each morning by saying “Another good day, right Mom?!” Mom replies in her realistic tone placing her coffee in the microwave again, “Okay, Dad”. They do this, call each other “Mom and Dad” the titles God bestowed on them that they cherish and will use day after day until there are no more days.
During my visit this past week, I wrote down some notes. As they are specific to my parents, I believe the lessons can be applied to taking care of any senior or otherwise. I wrote this list for my sisters, so it may read like a journal, but thought it might help someone out there.
I strongly believe “everyone needs a destination”
- Respect what I call “the triangle”: Church, the doctor’s office, and the grocery store. These are their familiar stomping grounds – weave in a few other outings (restaurant, casino, a walk) and it gives the day purpose.
Note: If you have to reschedule a doctor’s appointment, do it. Better to take them when they are prepared and feeling okay than stressed and apprehensive.
Listen to their stories – it connects them to a familiar time
- My mom’s stories about boarding school and all the nuns who served as her family when she moved away from home at 14 years old are formative years that are the spotlight of her daily memory.
- When mom talks about giving up the St. John’s College scholarship offer she received, I think about the huge sacrifice she made for her family by working and supporting them when grandpa was sick.
- Mom will remind you of the way grandma and grandpa warmed water on the stove for their baths and how they sang songs like “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” in perfect harmony.
- Dad will tell you stories in Spanglish as vividly as if you were there.
- Especially if you are reading a crossword clue to dad or the jumble letters, or driving and mom is in the back seat, or telling a story, or or or.
Diet and meals – let them eat cake!
- Mom will eat more and digest better if the food is cut into small pieces.
- Gatorade powder (more economical per dad) is rejuvenating. Stir thoroughly or he’ll tell you there is “perfectly good wasted sugar at the bottom of the glass” and refill it.
- Happy Hour is sacred, respect it. Open a beer for dad and poor mom’s Pedialyte. Place cheese, gluten-free crackers, and fruit on a plate and enjoy.
- The “Big” meal is at 3:00 pm.
- Dove Bars – we bought eight boxes at the commissary – it’s a highlight of the day…and a fair bribe to get mom to eat.
Outdoor Activities – Emerson said that the happiest person on earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So walk outside a lot.
- Mom will always have things to show you around the yard, enjoy the tour. Upon my arrival, she said, “Come meet our new family members.” I went out back and was greeted by 24 cranes who began squawking at me as I approached the fence. “If we go to the poor house,” mom said, “it’s because Dad and your sister keep feeding these guys so much corn”.
- Watching Dad move wood from the ground to the truck to the splitter and stack it is as exhausting as doing it yourself.
- Dad will work harder than any 20-year-old you’ve ever met and wonder why “me duele de todo” (everything hurts).
- Later, talk Dad through why “todo duele” (everything hurts) and gently remind him he is 87 years old and must pace himself.
Indoor Weather – Dress for summer
- It will always be warm inside mom and dad’s house. Our brilliant sister has the thermostat programmed to plummet to 72 degrees. (Highly Recommend!) To set the thermostat, press the bottom button on the left once, then walk away nonchalantly. Mom will later turn it up to 81 degrees. Once you are drenched in sweat, repeat the process.
- The fireplace will be used if the weather is 70 degrees or below.
Indoor Activities –
- Mom thinks her hearing is excellent, but according to a hearing test, it’s not. So, before watching Jeopardy, Mom will ask you to “turn up the volume because Dad can’t hear!”
- Mom’s filter has gone from almost there to MIA so when watching Jeopardy be ready for a roasting of Ken Jennings who “acts like he knows everything” …ummm…he did win about a million times.
- With Dad’s macular degeneration, he is still able to enjoy and make out the scenery on Alaska shows “Good hard workers!” he says. He also loves “Nat Geo” “The History Channel” and “The Weather Channel”. The more drama the better with the weather.
- Puzzles for mom…have one set up and another on deck at all times. This is her quiet space.
- Holding the newspaper in their hands brings comfort, familiarity, and joy. Even if Dad can’t see enough to read it.
- Let mom read the paper to dad in the morning while he slurps his way through the coffee and pastries or cookies. Tread lightly, this is their time.
- When Dad shakes out the newspaper he’ll say “Let’s see who’s left and let’s see who moved out of town.” Then he’ll hand me the obituary section to read aloud “slowly”. I announce the names as if they were crossing the stage at a commencement ceremony, or rather, St. Peter’s gate.
- The crossword and Jumble are great mental gymnastic exercises and keep their minds active.
Top 10 Do’s and Don’ts
- Don’t do laundry. That’s mom’s gig.
- If Dad is struggling with something DO take over and help.
- If mom is struggling with something, leave her alone. She “CAN DO IT!”
- Don’t move the scissors, pencils, coffee, Kleenex, or blankets. Life is now done by feel and rote memory.
- Do agree more.
- Do let dad cheer up mom. Dad equals levity.
- Do help them remember: Dad may not remember what he ate the night before – i.e.: “Oh we ate enchiladas last night? Did I enjoy them?” “Yes dad, you loved them.” “Oh good!”
- OR “Did we watch Blue Bloods last night?” Yes, dad, you fell asleep the last five minutes. “Did I enjoy it?” Yes, Dad – you loved it.“Oh good!”
- Do answer the phone, mean people prey on the elderly.
- Don’t ask them, “do you remember when…” just retell the story.
What I’ve learned:
Being far away is hard. Wondering if this is the phone call is hard hard hard. Saying goodbye to them at the airport when I leave is hard…homesickness in my fifties looks a lot different than it used to and I mentally prep myself for the lifelong homesickness yet to come.
But I love that God and Grace and Mercy exist. I love that when I cry and truly let out my fear of their absence that the tears feel like a Baptism. I love that I have my sisters. I love that we are like a pit crew, repairing what is broken, filling up our parent’s tank with all the love we possibly can because we’re on the clock. I love that we take care of each other.
Thanks for joining me,
“You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart–your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.”
4 thoughts on “How to care for those who cared for us…”
Tears filled my eyes by the end of this piece, both with humor and pathos. It is a blessing to recognize what one’s parents need on their terms and to lovingly give it to them…the respect and love that they so deserve. You and your sisters are testament to the way you were raised by your parents. Thank you for this piece that is not only personal for you but universal in its message!
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Thank you for your heartfelt message. It was the caffeine boost I needed to keep writing, sharing, and uncovering my stories. I appreciate your support so much.
Oh, Geez. Tears are streaming down my face as I write. What an amazing piece about two people we are glad are in our lives and who we too love dearly. You ragazze do a great job of loving and care for them, even from afar.
TONI MARTORELLI firstname.lastname@example.org
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Toni – Thanks for the kind words and all the love you bestow upon our family every day. Amore e abbracci!