Baby Steps for the Eighty Something Crowd

Last month, my eighty-two year-old mother had abdominal surgery. The operation was a result of three days of tests and an abdomen swollen to the size of a basketball.

Following surgery, she was released to a skilled nursing facility, where she could continue to recuperate, with others keeping a watchful eye. She promptly refused admittance and begged (or told) my father to take her home. He did so without hesitation.

But this left my parents in a predicament. Mother has dementia. She and Dad have lived in the same home for 30 years, until now without help. They are without clear medical oversight. Their grown children are working jobs and balancing families, some far away. Surely they had conversations about their long term health needs, enough to fill out the Health Care Power of Attorney forms and Advanced Directives. Yet none of these pertained to where they would make their home, once their home was no longer suitable for their needs.

A subset of siblings began to make phone calls, pleading with my father, who in the stubbornness associated with his generation, refused to bring in a caregiver, on the basis of money, not wanting someone else in their house, and pride. On those points, I was unable to get him to move an inch.

For two weeks conversations went back and forth between siblings and father. He would play the role of martyr to one, and play a different role to the next. I would hang up the phone wondering if I had just spoken to Jeckyll or Hyde.

I can’t pretend to know what was in his head, his heart. I did however have the background of caring for my first husband through his cancer battle, and knowing the end result was one I still regret. I gave him more care than I did love. Maybe this point is more important to women. Perhaps my father feels it is his duty to give Mom more care and that the love came in the form of the testimony to their nearly 50 years of marriage.

But when I was at home during mom’s operation, I found food spoiled, towels unwashed, left stiff. I found baggies from store-bought cold cuts being reused, as if there were no such thing as salmonella. And I found Mom needing company and a hair wash.

My mother was always one for appearance. She too was of her generation, taking pride in what she owned and in her appearance. Before we even drove to the hospital for her surgery, she stopped to put on lipstick. Throughout her stay, she was always inquiring as to the location of her comb, regardless of when her hair had last been washed or set.

Several weeks following the surgery, my father caved. I clearly stated Mom is not getting what she needs, and he is not in a position to give it to her, because her needs are beyond what any one person can offer. This same man who had uttered, “I should have taken your mother on more vacations,” hesitated. So I finished with, “Well, Mom won’t be going on too many vacations, but she can retain some dignity.” And her clean home and hair.

He relented long enough for Tamara to come into their home. He and I have not conversed in depth about the situation. It is too early. I don’t want to open the door for him to walk out on this deal.

But I did speak with Mom one morning, when Dad had departed for a meeting. Their caregiver, Tammy, had answered the phone then passed it on to Mom. She was laughing in the background as she came to the phone. I said, “Hi Mom. What are you up to?” And she replied, “Oh, well. I have a friend here and we are going to sit outside. It’s so beautiful today.” I could almost see her smile.

We didn’t speak long. I wanted Mom to hold fast to that feeling of friendship and freedom. I hung up and cried a little, called my younger sister, relayed the story, then cried a little more.

Baby steps, I had repeatedly told my father, as Mom progressed from the ER through surgery, ICU and finally home. Baby steps, I kept telling him, in regards to Mom’s recovery and in-home care.

Baby steps, I remind myself again.



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