Growing old sucks.

There’s just no two ways about it.

It’s only been a couple of months since my last visit home to visit mamma and step-father Kurt.  Since Mother’s Day to be exact. Kurt has shown a marked decline since that visit.  The signs of dementia have been creeping in ever so slowly…over the past five years.  Now all pretext of any subtleness is gone.  It’s real, glaringly…achingly so.  The shuffle of feet…tiny, like baby steps.  Uncharacteristically unkempt hair, sloppier in appearance and even more so in his eating habits.  He’s lost a good deal of weight.  He says convincingly that he purposefully lost the weight…”in order to move around better.”  I believed him as he delivered his explanation of his current health situation to my sis and me at the lunch table yesterday.  It’s an explanation that seems both sincere and rational.  He was after all, trying to address our concerns that there was, perhaps, a more dire medical crisis (i.e. cancer) that was at the root of his rapid weight loss.

Then I remembered my year working in a nursing home in Northern Virginia some sixteen years ago.  The marketing department where I worked as a marketing assistant was just around the corner from assisted living.  Often times residents would wander into the office in search of comfort, companionship, and conversation.  I tried to offer all three and perform my administrative duties at the same time.  This used to cause great friction with one of my office mates, a bitter old woman who had no compassion in her heart for the assisted living residents…which was precisely why I made time for every resident that stopped by even if it meant enduring my office mates angry diatribe.   Several regulars were Alzheimer patients.  They’d tell me stories with what appeared to be great lucidity and truthfulness only to find out later from one of their family members or management staff that the stories were complete fabrications of the mind.   I learned to play along, nodding politely or enthusiastically at proper intervals.  I am beginning to think that perhaps my stepfather’s friend Debbie was right; Kurt is hiding something about his condition and he is not telling us the real story and this is either due to his dementia or its due to his desire to keep things quiet in order to not upset our mamma.

Sis and I are saddened to the core about the state of things with our mother and step-father.  We believe it doesn’t have to be this way.  Mamma is mean as a snake on most days… and, in a moment of calm admitted as much to sis and me.  Mamma has complained about pain since my earliest childhood recollection. There was always something wrong.  I cannot remember a day when mamma felt good, or really happy.  I know all too well that pain affects our mood.  Ask my husband.  Some days I am crankier than usual because of my bad knees.  The difference between mamma and me, other than the fact that I make it my mission to move my body every single day, is that I always apologize for my crankiness.

Sis and I are at our wits end on trying to help mamma and Kurt talk about “The Plan.”  What happens when you can no longer care for each other….or yourselves? It is a subject that they both fiercely refuse to discuss.  They want to keep things at the status-quo.   Mamma is in denial, though after this weekend’s visit there is a crack in the veneer.  And that too is profoundly sad to witness.

We need to do something besides waiting for the shoe to drop.  Worrying and thinking about our parents has nearly consumed us…24/7.  Maybe we need a plan.  Ah…easier thought than done.

So….sis and I took a walk up the road to the assisted living facility.  It’s not even a mile from my mother’s house.    It was simply for information gathering purposes.  “We have to explore all avenues,” I told my reluctant sis.  She isn’t buying any of it.  Besides the fact that there is no money for such a plan, Mom isn’t going to like it.  She is not going to want to go to a nursing home,” sis emphatically said many, many times.  And yes…my baby sis is absolutely right!  Who really wants to go into nursing home?  Certainly not I.  I worked in a nursing home for just over a year.   I know exactly what it would be like to live in a nursing home.   OK, well, almost….

Still, I can honestly state that some residents were quite happy.  The happy ones developed new friendships and enjoyed the center’s activities.  The happy ones smiled during chair yoga classes and went to poem reading sessions with the same excitement of little kids going Chuck-e-Cheese for a party.  Some residents didn’t have the good fortune to have anyone visiting them yet they still seemed, at least to me, to have accepted their new place in life with dignity…managing to be upbeat and engaged in life to the end.  I suppose those folks always lived life with the “glass half-full” mentality.

Sis broke down with tears half-way through our tour of the assisted living facility.  She should not feel bad…I did the same thing the first day on the job when I worked in the nursing home.  I can remember it as if it were yesterday; I hid in the toilet stall of the ladies restroom choking away tears during my lunch break.  Sis excused herself and met up with me some five minutes later.  Me?  I didn’t shed a tear.  Not then anyway.  But yes….despite trying to be upbeat about the place I was breaking up inside too, more than sis knew.  Somehow, I kept it together.

As we walked back to our mom’s house sis reiterated that mom and Kurt would never go for living in such a place.  Sis was also suspicious about the staff person/marketing guy that gave us the tour.  “He’s just telling us what we want to hear,” she said through her remaining tears.   Well, yes I thought.  Yes…he is selling a product.  And yes, he is telling us what we want to hear.  He’s trying to reassure us that our loved ones will be cared for with dignity and respect in their final years.  I tried to impress upon my sis that I did the exact job all those years ago in the nursing home.  I was the marketing girl…I conducted tours, met with prospective residents and their family members and I went over resident packages and all the associated costs of residential care.  Each word that came out of that marketing guy’s mouth were the very ones I said during my employment as a marketing assistant in a nursing home.  It was all a blast from the past for me and it was all I could do to remain upbeat about the whole thing.   “I cannot see mom sitting in that dining room for dinner….she’d hate it; look how depressed those people look slumped over the table in their wheelchairs with blank expressions on their faces,” sis commented later over coffee with friend Debbie.  I know. I know.  Yes, I know.  It’s not pretty this whole near-to-the-end of life thing which only adds to the wretched sadness we both feel.  “Sis,” I said, tired from the ordeal of the entire day “It’s no different for me walking into mom’s house and seeing her lying in bed, often in a drug-induced fog from the cocktail of pills she takes every day…or for our step-dad…shuffling at a snail’s pace to the dinner table lost in his own world.  It’s the same thing, just different decor.”

The cycle of life is staring us down.  For sure, this cannot be easy for sis, who is ten years younger than I and, without question, it isn’t easy for me because…well, I am ten years closer to my end if we’re lucky enough to follow a normal lifespan that is.  We are being faced with our future sooner than we want.   I suppose we are in denial as well so how on earth can we fault our mamma for wanting to holding on to her world?  She wants to stay in her home, even if that means being completely alone, surrounded by all the beautiful things that have brought her comfort or joy throughout the years.  Who wouldn’t?  It’s just so terribly sad that she can’t.  She can’t, not on her own.

And so, when we said goodbye to our mamma several days later it was my turn to cry.  Mamma had made the effort to see us off which was a big step for her.   I can still see her stooped over her red “Maserati” walker, trying to hold her tears back and not succeeding.  We’ll be back…sooner rather than later I know.  The memories of our past visits….happier times…must get us through this difficult phase.  In fact, I have to make them bigger, brighter perhaps, than they ever were to get me to a happier place so that I don’t succumb to overwhelming depression.

As the airport shuttle made its way out of Carefree, I reached over and held my sister’s hand.  Never than in this moment did I feel so afraid of losing my sis!  I need her more than she’ll ever know.   Tears flowed… and flowed again some hours later as I sat trying to find “my happy place” with a Starbucks latte at the Dallas-Ft.Worth airport.

Where there is love, there is so often deep, heart-wrenching pain and sadness.  It’s part of the journey…it’s part of the fabric of life.  In the end, I just hope that I will face whatever comes my way with dignity, without fear, and hopefully…not alone.