My best childhood friend left a message on my phone a few days ago. She had been thinking of me, she said.
I called her back immediately because we never talk on the phone or email each other, so the fact that she was thinking about me must have meant something.
As we talked, I realized it meant that her 95-year-old father was dying. She was renting out her house for six months to move closer to him and as she was packing up, she found things that reminded her of me. Memories of childhood creep back when our parents are declining -- maybe they help lessen the burdens and crises many of us face when the inexorable happens. Despite the planning for caretaking and living arrangements for our elderly parents, we are rarely prepared for the emotional impact of relocating them, or for the trips to the emergency room, the unexpected needs and demands.
My parents died a decade ago, within a year of each other. But the stress I felt during the few years of their failing health was unlike any stress I had endured before. It fed on worry and fear, on resentment and sadness even though I had support from my sisters and husband and friends, even though I know we all reach a certain age and die. Despite that knowledge, the most difficult piece of caring for my parents was keeping perspective on what was happening to them and the part I was playing in their caretaking.
As Roz Chast wrote about her parents in her new graphic memoir, "Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?", "I could see that they were slowly leaving the sphere of TV-Commercial old age: Spry! Totally independent! Just like a normal adults but with silver hair! ...and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture." Ms. Chast writes that she, "worried about them CONSTANTLY."
Last weekend, at my college reunion, I talked to my roommate for a long time about her 94-year-old mother and how the stress of caring for her has affected my friend physically. Research has found it is not unusual for people’s health to suffer when caring for elderly parents.
My roommate drives from Connecticut to Long Island once a week to spend two nights at the residential community where her mother lives. "What’s the big deal with that?" I thought initially -- but three hours in backed up traffic on the Long Island Expressway combined with constant worry is a free pass to an ulcer or migraine or worse. But what my friend finds most stressful are the changes in the independent, creative woman who raised her.
A questionnaire had been sent to the members of my class and our answers were compiled in a "Class History." "What have been some unexpected personal challenges and how have you coped with them?" asked question #3. Not surprisingly, many of the answers dealt with the challenge of caring for aging parents. What came through in those answers though, wasn’t complaint or self-pity, but devotion and love.
One classmate observed that while caregiving "has been an unexpected, unplanned challenge for me" (her parents, in-laws, an uncle, a friend)...I have come to realize that all of them were some of the best teachers in my life."
Another left home to take care of her mother who was dying from a brain tumor, only to have a "personal relationship with a long-term partner fall apart during the time." She wrote: "How did I cope? I just kept on living."
Ten million adult children who take care of their parents are over 50. We’re not the sandwich generation but a generation of older people, many retired, taking care of much older parents. According to an article on The Huffington Post by Dr. Glen D. Braunstein, "the number of adults taking care of aging parents has tripled in the past 15 years and a full 25 percent of grown children are helping their parents by providing either personal care or financial assistance."
There is lots of advice about how to get support, how to cope, what resources are available to us during this difficult phase of our lives. But as Roz Chas notes, aging and caring for aging parents is not part of our culture. As our life span keeps extending, and ads and articles keep telling us we can look forward to living past 100, maybe society will eventually find ways to talk about it and make it less scary for parents and children alike.
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.