Actress Bette Davis once said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” If true, then I may be a sissy in the making, because I’m not looking forward to old age – not after watching it take my 89-year-old dad hostage.
He’s developed a habit of keeling over, unannounced. The neurologist believes it’s due to the changes in his brain, or maybe a sudden drop in his blood pressure when he stands, or both.
Brain shrinkage, I’m told, affects certain physical functions, including the ability to stand in one place without giving in to gravity.
Add to that the pre-existing conditions – macular degeneration that’s robbed him of his vision; neuropathy that’s made it hard for him to feel the ground under his feet or push the pedals of a car (and hence, the loss of driving privileges); sluggish heart, which led to a pacemaker that protrudes from his bony chest; dim hearing; no sense of smell; and an uncooperative prostate that’s taken over his bodily functions.
He’s running out of reasons to wake up in the morning, he says.
The last time he keeled over I was down in Philly, visiting. I had just stepped into the next room when I heard the crash. At first, I figured it was the heater repairman working in the bathroom. But as I replayed the sound in my mind, something was wrong. I ran back to the living room to find my dad splayed on the floor, refrigerator door wide open, a half-gallon jug of iced tea near his head, his glasses at an odd angle by the jug of tea, all three of them miraculous inches from the unyielding edge of the coffee table.
His eyes were closed. His face, pale. My heart, pounding.
The ambulance ride to the hospital was nerve-wracking, and the three-hour wait for an actual emergency room cubicle was frustrating. You’d think a Friday afternoon might not be such a busy time at the ER.
A CAT scan revealed a “slight bleed” on Dad’s brain. He had suffered a similar fall in January 2014, with a similar outcome. So I already knew that, unless the bleeding got worse, he’d likely just have to rest while his brain reabsorbed the leak.
We spent the night together, he in the neurological intensive care unit, me in the “family room” down the hall on a pull-out couch. By the next morning, the doctors and physical therapy team said the only way he could pass go and head for home, rather than a rehab center, was if he was going to have around-the-clock supervision.
He has good health care and some resources socked away. But the costs of medical care are out of this world, and there’s only so much Medicaid and Medicare will cover, leaving lots of elders falling through the gaps between the rising cost of health and safety, and bankruptcy.
His nurse, who explained she went through something similar with her own dad, described Dad’s fall as a “game changer.”
“This isn’t your first fall. You’re lucky, Mr. Mandel. Had you hit your head harder, or hit it on a table, or been alone, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Do you have a living will?” she asked him. “Because if you were placed on a respirator and you don’t have your wishes in writing . . .”
My thoughts drowned out the rest. I couldn’t hear her voice anymore over the little voice inside my head, informing me my father is not going to live forever. This is something my own heart condition prevented me from understanding: It loves him too much to see him go.
Those baby boomers among us lucky enough to still have a parent or two left are already living between worlds – trying to figure out how to gracefully escort our parents through the valley of the shadow of death while juggling the trials and tribulations of being fifty-something – which for most of us means our own looming health issues, compounded by teens or college-aged kids, over-employment or unemployment, maybe long-distance caregiving, or maybe dividing care with siblings scattered around the map.
My cousin, who just buried his 93-year-old mother, told me about the trials of being the only child left to make decisions. It was costing close to $8,000 per month for his mother’s nursing home care in Indiana. He tried to keep her in her home, but had some bad experiences with in-home caregivers who were less than trustworthy. The nursing home seemed safer. Yet, in the end, she fell – more than once – suffering hematomas and humiliation.
“We can’t be with them around the clock,” one of the caregivers told him.
The tribulation for the rest of us comes as we struggle to make the tough joint decisions with siblings or spouses. We could agree to disagree, but that doesn’t help get things done. So it gets messy, even ugly, with collateral damage that may be permanent.
We won’t know until it’s over.
Last week, I found myself on the phone with a colleague, a guy I’ve never met in person. The preamble to the point of the call had us both apologizing for being distracted in the past few weeks, both of us dealing with aging parents.
I said my own experience had led me to decide that I will be happy to live to 75, tops. That will be long enough to squeeze a few more memories into my brain before it fails me. I don’t want my children to have to second guess when to take away my car keys or get me a full-time nanny who’s adept at changing adult diapers.
“I told my sons I’m just going to take a walk into the woods one day and that they shouldn’t follow me,” my colleague said.
I laughed, not because it’s funny, but because it’s so compelling. I appreciated the fact that I’m not the only one planning my own “going away party,” knowing what I now know about getting old.
“My husband and I have decided, when the time comes, we’re going to do everything that we’ve been told not to do – heavy drinking, lots of smoking, maybe some non- prescription drugs. There will be butter and bacon,” I said.
“Hey, give me a call. I’d come for that,” said the guy on the phone, also laughing the uncomfortable laugh of our inevitable but self-directed demise.
If old age ain’t no place for sissies, then I guess it’s time to toughen up. I’m talking to you, baby boomers.
Once we figure out how to help our parents make it to the other side, we’d better take a cold, hard look at what growing old in America means.
Because the view from here, so far, is unwelcoming.
(Carol Robidoux is editor and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com, an independent news site covering Manchester.)
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