Your Life Compass®
Take a Moment
Canada’s Magazine for Body, Mind & Spirit
Issue 74 Honouring our Elders
Before They Go
by Thelma Mariano
Reaping the benefits of a relationship with your aging parents
I will always remember that day in the doctor’s office when I was told about my mother’s disease. I had brought her in for a check up because even with all the notes and reminders scattered throughout her home, she was becoming confused. I reacted to the doctor’s diagnosis with shock and disbelief. Then I researched Alzheimer’s and realized the enormity of what I was facing.
Like so many boomers heading into their 40s or 50s,
I became responsible for a parent’s care.
According to Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Aging and Social Support, almost 20% of Canadians over 45 years old provide care to one or more family members over 65. This number is rising as our population ages.
At 47, I was working full-time in a large multinational and managing to write and coach in my off hours. Now my mother required help and I knew that the demands on my time would only grow in future. I saved some money and left my day job.
In the past it was impossible for me to get close to my mother, as she had a critical tongue and a rigid way of thinking. This began to change with her cognitive impairment. As the edges of her mind blurred, some of her walls came down.
An incident stands sharply in mind. One wintry night as I prepared to haul her bags of garbage down three flights of stairs, she said something that startled me: “thank you.” I had never heard those words from her. For the first time in my life I could feel her appreciation.
During the next six years, I handled more and more of the intricacies of her daily routine. Though she clung to her independence, eventually she could no longer perform even simple tasks like opening a can or unlocking her front door.
When she was moved into a nursing home, she did not adapt to her new surroundings. She became agitated and continually asked to “go home” long after she knew what that meant. She wanted to see me more often; I realized that it gave her peace of mind. As her disease progressed, the two of us became a team.
I encouraged her to exercise so that she would retain quality of life as long as possible. I marched her down hallways and up stairs, walked with her to a nearby park and played ball and sandbags with her. The day she stopped walking, I cried, because that meant the end of whatever autonomy she had left.
These last years with my mother
have been a period of tremendous growth and healing
for me. Here are some instances of what I gained.
By making so many decisions on her behalf, from medication and nursing care to legal issues and finances, I found my own strength and courage.
I could never remember my mother laughing but we laughed together, effortlessly, as I sat on her bed many afternoons in the nursing home. I would say something and she would reply. However her words came out garbled and they sounded strange even to her!
I discovered that I shared common values with her her love of nature (she collected wildflowers), her frugality and yes, even her fierce independence.
In caring for my mother, I was able to feel my love for her and know it was returned. This surprised me, since we had never been close before.
As the disease continued to rob her of basic functions, I felt my mother’s losses as though they were my own. Despite my despair, this gave me a new appreciation of my own health and autonomy.
Currently my mother is in a deeper stage of Alzheimer’s. She has retreated into a fuzzy world where faces and voices blend. Most days she does not recognize me and cannot understand what I say. I miss her welcoming smile and the way we were able to relate to each other. It has all gone too fast.
As our parents grow frail and less capable, they often need us, their grown children, to intercede. Sometimes they are unable to make an assessment of what should be done and we must act in their best interest.
Apart from making sure they are safe and properly cared for, we need to be with them as often as we can, to let them know that they are loved. When they pass on, it is too late.
I am convinced that looking after our elders is a gift. It is an opportunity for us to make peace with the past and reach a new understanding together or, if we already have a good relationship with them, to strengthen our ties. In spite of the challenges we may face, it can be a period to look back upon with gratitude in the years to come.