Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Cardboard Doll Carriage

Aunt Doreen and her husband, Jack, in 1987

My husband, Carn, was on the phone with his delightful, chatty elderly Aunt Doreen not long ago. Since I answered the phone first, we exchanged hellos and she told me the cutest story before she talked to Carn.

When she was a little girl in the 1920's in western Canada, one bright summer day she decided she wanted to take her dolly for a walk.  As she was from a family with modest means, she didn't have a doll carriage. But being the smart and imaginative child that she was, she found a discarded cardboard box, made a small hole and tied a string to it.  She padded it with a soft and cozy worn-out blanket and gently placed her dolly inside.  She took the string in her hand, then proudly, with her head held high, curly locks just so and a spring in her step, she began walking down the sidewalk dragging the cardboard-box doll carriage behind her.  

She came upon a horse and buggy left waiting in the street while the owner, a local merchant, delivered goods to a neighbor's house.  This brought a big smile to little Doreen's face as she loved horses. How could this day get any better, she thought to herself, pleased as she could be.  Naturally, the box scraping across the pavement was rather noisy, having no wheels and all.  As she walked by, the grating noise of her "carriage" spooked the horse so fiercely he suddenly reared wildly and bolted, buggy in tow, galloping through gardens and flowerbeds, bringing down clotheslines until he finally found his way home.

Of course, as Aunt Doreen put it, the horse wasn't the only one that was scared out of his wits.  She grabbed the dolly and ran madly back into her house, hid behind the curtain and peeked out the corner of the window.  She watched breathlessly as the horse left a trail of destruction behind and disappeared out of sight.  The merchant was left stranded and not too happy. Hands on his hip, he looked all around to see if he could find what caused his poor horse to take flight. He notice an empty box on the sidewalk. But that wouldn't scare a horse. Aunt Doreen said she never told a soul for years....

It has only been in the last couple of years that Carn has re-established a close relationship with his aunt.  He is continually surprised at how much family folklore he gathers talking to his mom's youngest sister. Some of it has proved to be life-altering. There were unfortunate gaps in Carn's infancy and early childhood due to the five-year absence of his father during WWII.  Then immediately after his discharge, his dad was
Carn, age 5 with his cat & hat,
still two of his favorite things today
diagnosed and hospitalized for twenty years with tuberculosis. The long separations due to the war and illness eventually led to the divorce of his parents when he was 7.  He remembers seeing his dad only a few times as a young boy making it impossible to truly know or bond with him. Over the years, he has experienced a sense of abandonment which was further complicated by misinformation, sometimes negative, about his dad.

It just so happens Aunt Doreen lived with my husband's parents for a period of time shortly after they were married and she became well acquainted with his dad.  Her affirmative comments about him 65 years years later strengthen his image in Carn's mind. Everyone genuinely liked his father who earned the nickname "Goody" because he was such a generous and amiable person.  He would never have intentionally abandoned his only son.  Had it not been for WWII and contracting contagious TB in the battlefields of Europe, Carn would have had the dad he always wanted.  With her enlightening and warm-hearted stories, Aunt Doreen has filled in some of those painful gaps, leaving Carn with new and positive memories of his father.
Carn's father, Canadian soldier WWII

This is huge, really.  Who would have thought that simply chatting on the phone with his only remaining aunt could be a source of life-changing encouragement for Carn?  Hooray for Aunt Doreen!  And hooray for Carn!  Restoring a lost family tie serves to validate and honor his aunt who is in her 80's.  As we journey through life and finally near the end of the road, we all want to know that our lives were worthwhile, that we were heard and what we had to say mattered.  Aunt Doreen's stories really "matter"!  This revitalized family bond is of mutual benefit to them both.

This is why our relational Triune God created the relational human family. We need each other. It is never too late to seek to restore family ties and fill in the gaps. And you never know--not only is it possible for much needed validation, peace of mind and emotional healing to occur as a result, but you may also find yourself fascinated and entertained by charming stories of the "olden" days--you know, like the one about the pert little girl taking her dolly for a stroll  in a cardboard doll carriage....

The sunset of life can be beautiful....


Friday, April 26, 2013

The Richest Lady Around

Grandma Swenson 1890-1971

I always had mixed feelings about visiting my maternal grandparents when I was a child. We lived in town, small as it was, it was still "town."  However, they lived in the country, way out in the middle of the flat cotton fields of south central Texas.  They were hard-working share-croppers, farming land they did not own in exchange for rent and a modest share of the annual crop proceeds.  Their unpainted wood-frame house had no indoor plumbing, but they did have a bathtub located on the closed-in back porch.  Once a week the tub was filled with water from the well in the backyard.  In summer, buckets of water were poured from a barrel left sitting out in the hot sun for warmth.  In winter, the bath-water was heated in large pots on an old kerosene stove. Then everyone took their turn, usually children and ladies first.  I remember being pouty and crabby about the lack of privacy on the few occasions when I had to take a bath at grandmas.  Not fun.

Everyone entered the house from the back through a squeaky screen door to the porch, walking past the prized bathtub and into the small kitchen where Grandma prepared her mouth-watering meals on an old coal-oil cooking stove. I can still picture it. There was a sturdy wood "pie safe" in the kitchen where dishes and food items were stored on shelves covered with faded but decorative shelf paper--the only nice touch in the kitchen. In one corner, there was a smallish table protected by crackly, aged oilcloth where many a tasty and flaky pie crust was rolled out.  There was not a single thing in that cramped little kitchen that made Grandma's job easier, yet she managed to put together Texas-style feasts that brought rave reviews. She never sat down with us to eat, but rushed around refilling plates if anyone slowed down. Eating at Grandma's, now that was fun.

She kept her "spending money" tied up in the corner of a handkerchief, stashed away in her dresser drawer.  If I happened to be visiting when she made one of her infrequent trips to the store for flour, sugar or coffee, she never failed to buy me yummy ice cream or some candy. More fun.

Even though the old homestead was not comfy or beautiful or convenient, it was the center of family gatherings.  After eating all you could eat, the table and chairs were moved to the side of the room and corn meal was sprinkled on the floor. Then the dancing started.  All of my relatives could play some type of instrument--a guitar or mandolin or fiddle or harmonica.  Just outside the back door were over-sized wash tubs chock-full of blocks of ice and bottles of beer.  Grandma didn't care what the people she loved did to her house as long as they had fun.  The adults really "kicked up their heels" and it scared me a little.  I have to admit I was a bit of a party-pooper as a child.

Me in my new green & while bathing suit
On one visit to my grandparents when I was about six, I wore my brand new green and white striped bathing suit that I thought was soooooo cute.  So my mom got out the Kodak camera and took my picture as I proudly struck the most glamorous pose I could come up with.  Feeling very pleased with myself, I sashayed  back to the house, stepping right smack into some chicken droppings along the way.  Every self-respecting kid in south Texas went barefoot all summer long and "stepping in something" was always a probability and one of the things I hated most!  Well, that pretty much burst my bubble....  Not fun.

And I don't need to go into the outhouse stories with the torn-up Sears catalog and the little hole for kids and big hole for adults.  Again, not fun.

It's noteworthy that my big brother absolutely loved visiting the old farm and riding the tractor, fishing and hunting and playing in the barn.  He would have lived there permanently if he could have and so would my four other cousins who all happened to be boys.  I was the only girl and felt more than a little overwhelmed by somewhat primitive farm life.  I believe if there had been another  little girl cousin to play with, I like to think we would have giggled when we stepped in something and pretended the outhouse was a cute enchanted cottage...well, that's probably stretching it a bit.  I just  remember in the summertime when my parents occasionally left me on my own at Grandma's for a day or so, I spent hours amusing myself midway down the long, dusty driveway that led to the house anxiously waiting for them to come back and rescue me.  I'm sure it broke Grandma's heart looking out the window at her forlorn little granddaughter shuffling gravel with her feet pretending to look for bits of pretty colored glass.

Now sixty years later and a grandma in my own right, it's hard to hold back the tears as I relive the times I  spent with Grandma Swenson. She was empty-handed when it came to physical possessions and lacked  educational opportunities. As was typical of her generation, I don't think anyone ever bothered to ask her whether she had her own hopes and dreams.  I doubt she was aware she could have dreams.  All she knew from childhood as the firstborn of seven siblings was taking her place of responsibility in the family and doing never-ending chores.  When she married and bore six children of her own, the dilapidated, but scrubbed-clean farm house with its barns and acreage became her world.
Grandma & Grandpa Swenson next
to the squeaky screen door.

Born in 1890, Minnie Swenson was a tall, heavy-set lady.  At least she seemed tall to my child's eye when she stood next to my grandfather who was of short stature.  She certainly wasn't fashionable.  Her dresses were timeworn, often a little tattered and sometimes held together here and there with safety pins.  Getting her hair styled was out of the question.  Her hands were not nicely manicured, but rather rough and calloused from all the hard labor indoors and out. Her round face was sunburned and prematurely wrinkled.  Taking care of herself just wasn't practical in any sense of the word.  But she had clear, sky-blue eyes that sparkled and lit up her serene, but weary, countenance.

In the years after we moved and lived out of state, we never received any letters from Grandma Swenson. The daughter of Swedish immigrants, she could speak English, albeit with a strong Swedish accent, but had never been taught to read or write.  My brother has sweet memories of her sitting every evening in her rocking chair in the bedroom, holding up the newspaper as though she were reading it, but in reality she was only looking at the pictures.

One could say Grandma Swenson didn't have much to offer.  Well, one could say that but it's so not true.  Bereft of physical possessions, she was nonetheless the richest woman around.  She left an opulent legacy of generosity, kindheartedness, self-sacrifice and the priceless knack of facilitating authentic family bonding.  No one in the family has any memory of her complaining about her lot in life.  She and my grandfather never argued. Just good times, family gatherings filled with laughter and singing and dancing.  Her youngest daughter said of her "What a beautiful life....what loving and caring parents we had."

My maternal grandmother deserved loads of honor which I was unable to give her personally when I was young.  But I've found it's never too late to honor someone's memory.  Now, searching through my childhood memories of her is like discovering hidden treasure--prized tidbits of information and stories that I can entrust to my children and my grandchildren so she will live on in their hearts as well.

As happened too often in those days, Minnie (Nygrin) Swenson eventually became old and in the way and spent her final years sharing a tiny musty room with a complete stranger in an "old folks' home" that was devoid of the  warmth and family that had always surrounded her. She had children that wanted to take her in, but none of them lived locally and Grandma simply refused to leave. The uplifting goodness of God was very much in evidence during her lifetime. She finished her work here on earth with grace and dignity. Her dazzling inward beauty never faded.  I feel privileged to have been her only granddaughter.

Grandma and Grandpa Swenson (center) with their adult children
in front of the old farm house.
The sunset of life can be beautiful....

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Maggie...Not too Big, Not too Small

My dad
The day my mom passed away, I was standing by the french doors in our bedroom, looking out toward our back yard.  I wasn't really focusing on anything specifically, just staring, when I noticed a small scruffy, rusty brown dog trot by, tail and ears down, looking very abandoned.  We lived in a semi-rural area, about a mile from the main highway, so it was not unusual for people to dump unwanted animals on our road.  Often these scared little creatures would show up on our doorstep.  Another forsaken dog left to fend for itself, was my original thought.  Then for some reason out of the blue it struck me, could this be exactly what my dad will be needing--a furry companion to help ease the powerful sense of  loneliness that would only intensify with each passing day? We were all going to miss my mom something fierce, but since my dad would be living in their house all alone now, he was to bear the brunt of it.  He and my mom had been together for 70 years.  Now she was suddenly gone.

As I expected, the deserted dog hung around our house...especially since I began to feed her. She was such a sweet gentle thing, not too big, not too small.  Huge brown eyes! And longish wavy fur that needed a good brushing.  Her reddish hair made her appear somewhat "Irish" to us, so my husband and I named her Maggie. It was evident she had recently had puppies, which was probably her big mistake (as if she could help it). That's too often the reason many people decide they don't want to be bothered with a pet any longer, so they do things like ditch them on a country road.

It was as though Maggie had been dropped into our lives from heaven.  We hadn't yet had time to assess  the ripple effects of the loss of my mom.  Obviously, my dad was going to be painfully lonely, we could have predicted that.  But it is not something one thinks about in the midst of all the emotions and stress of a lingering illness and subsequent death of a loved one.  Prior to the moment I saw the little stray, there had been no thought of getting a pet for my dad.  So, it became clear to us God lovingly arranged all the circumstances for Maggie to enter our lives on the very day of my mom's death.  He knew how much my dad would need some company.

So many good, longtime friends and beloved family attended my mom's funeral.  For our grandchildren, it was the first funeral they had ever been a part of.  They loved their great grandma so much.  The casket was open during the memorial and they each carefully laid a rose next to her as they said goodbye.  Tears flowed.  My dad was so grieved, he could not bring himself to attend.  But he had been strong enough to spend some time alone with my mom in the funeral home the previous evening.

After returning from the funeral, we brought Maggie next door to my dad's house for a proper introduction.  Initially Dad was a little dubious about the name we had given her. I suppose we should have let him name his own dog.  But he soon began to call her Maggie too.  They quickly became fast friends.  Maggie was very well behaved, didn't bark and slept inside on a throw rug on the floor next to my dad's old green recliner. Each morning, when we saw Maggie playfully running around the yard, we knew Dad was up.  She blended seamlessly into the family as though she had been hand-picked.

Thirteen months after losing my mom, my dad passed away at age 93.  Hospice staff had been coming by to assist him since my mom died and one male nurse in particular, whose name was Ali, became exceptionally attached to my dad and to Maggie.  During one of his visits to see Dad who had been hospitalized prior to his death, Ali told me if anything should happen, he would love to take Maggie as a souvenir of the warm friendship he and my dad had formed.  We had mixed emotions about letting her go, but it seemed to mean so much to him.  And sure enough, the day my dad was put to rest, I watched as Ali drove away from my father's house with little Maggie, snuggled next to him in the front seat of his car, looking confused, but not unhappy.  So the unexpected gift from heaven named Maggie, that had helped fill a void in my dad's broken heart, went on to her next assignment--bringing more memories, love and loyalty to a compassionate nurse and his young family.

The sunset of life can be beautiful.....

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ugly Sweaters.....

"Please!  Can't you help me?  Get me out of here!" my mom pleaded as she tugged on the railing of the rented hospital bed.  And then she pointed, hand trembling, at the crimson red cardinal on a bird feeder just beyond her bedroom window.  "I wish I could fly away..." she said longingly.  All day long, she begged me to rescue her.  From time to time, I had to leave the room because it was too much to bear.

It had taken years, but we had finally arrived at this place.  My mom's physical body had totally betrayed her.  She was bed bound, trapped and imprisoned by the end result of an inopportune series of debilitating health issues, including surgeries for colon and breast cancer.  Her memory had faded almost completely.

At the time, I felt I was failing her because all I could do was be present, sitting on a chair drawn close to her bedside.  My own coping and caregiving resources were hanging by a thread.  Sheer exhaustion prevented me from being as fully engaged in her profoundly disturbing emotional struggle as I would like to have been.  What do you say to a loved one who has finally reached her final days, but is unable to grasp what that means?  Whatever words of comfort, whatever words of explanation, it didn't matter.  They were quickly forgotten a few minutes later.

Lots of great grandchildren sugar
Now, lest you misunderstand, my decade-long caregiving journey with my mom started out on a high note and stayed that way for the most part.  It was a shared adventure that made me feel worthwhile and useful.  Under normal circumstances, my mom was light-hearted, easy going and fun.  As we navigated her numerous unfortunate serious illnesses, we laughed a lot.  Trips to the doctor's offices were often "eventful."  Having become somewhat childlike, Mom would usually say whatever popped into her mind.  If she noticed a lady in the waiting room wearing a sweater she didn't care for, then of course, she had to comment:  "Look at that ugly sweater!"  Saying "Shh, Mom!  She can hear you!" made no difference at all.  Or she might decide to put her finger in her nose, declining my polite offer of a tissue with a big smile on her face.  More than once, I wanted to move to another chair on the other side of the room and pretend she wasn't with me.  Sometimes I seriously wondered if she knew she was putting me in awkward predicaments just for the fun of it....

She always forgot what her colostomy bag was for, then thought it was hilarious when I explained once again what was in there.  Speed car racing events were among her favorite TV programs .  Sometimes she watered her artificial flowers.  When I reminded her they really don't need water, she thought that was funny too.  Oh, and then there was the daily morning ritual helping her get dressed.  I'd get her all fixed up, everything matching and colorful, come back an hour later to find she had changed clothes.  I continually tried to hide one particularly frayed and snagged old grey sweater that I didn't have the heart to throw away, but she always mysteriously managed to dig it out and put it on.  (Yes, she had her own ugly sweater....)  Most of the time, it didn't matter.  But when we were expecting company, I know guests had to be wondering why I didn't buy her some decent outfits.

Mom lookin' snazzy
Of course, mom had not always been a mischievous and forgetful great grandma who delighted great grandchildren by tickling them under the chin saying she was getting some sugar.  She had been a beloved daughter, a fun sister, a faithful wife, a best friend of many, a concerned caregiver.  She made the best cheesecake in the world.  Talk about having a green thumb--amazing flowers and exotic plants would grow in dirt she left behind on her potting table.  She loved traveling, camping and desert rock hunting.  She was a top-notch bargain hunter.  I'm told she was quite the gal in her younger years--she enjoyed looking "snazzy" and throwing what was called back in those day "hen parties" with all her girlfriends.  She was a devoted grandma and mom.  I was the girl she always wanted, born eight years after my brother, the boy she always wanted.

Because dealing with dementia means living "in the moment" with the one afflicted, often I would forget the able-bodied and sound-minded individual that was my mom.  It was too easily overshadowed by the intense caregiving she required as she approached a great old age.  Had she been able to verbalize it, she would have wanted me and everyone else to be mindful of all that she had been and accomplished, now unrecognizable behind the fa├žade of  infirmity, wrinkles and failing memory.

The next time you look into the limpid eyes of an elderly, worn-out human being who may feel old and in the way, try to see beyond the frail exterior and search for the essence of the exuberance of youth and beauty, good times, love, values, experience, hopes and dreams, including the heartaches and scars of living that shaped that unique person.  It's still there underneath it all.  Even if someone has become debilitated or suffers diminished memory, you may find yourself surprised by their response to the depth of your perception.

Mom and her
I will never forget my mom's last words to me.  Her quality of life continued to ebb away and we arranged for her to be placed into a hospice care facility.  She had to be transported there by ambulance.  Surprisingly, that particular day, she became unusually alert and talkative.  Apparently she chatted to the attendant riding with her, saying who knows what.  I was afraid to least he wasn't wearing an ugly sweater.  When they placed her on a stretcher and wheeled her into the facility to her room, she was awake and propped upright.  I remember thinking how pretty she looked.  Before I left her room that day, she pointed at me and told the nurse, "That's my beautiful daughter!"

Mom suddenly fell into a coma-like state.  We lost the ability to reach each other.  And then she was gone, her God-given purpose in life on this earth fulfilled.  I hate to admit it, but it took me a very long time to finally throw away her favorite frayed and faded ugly grey sweater.

The sunset of life can be beautiful....

(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why Does a Hummingbird Hum?

Dad loved eating pie as much as he loved telling jokes

Why does a hummingbird hum?  Because it doesn't know the words....  OK, I can hear you groan.  But that was one of my dad's favorite jokes.  That and other zingers like the guy selling candy bars for ten cents each or two for a quarter.  If Dad could be coaxed into standing up and telling jokes at a gathering, the audience laughed till they cried.  And this happened on numerous occasions well into his advanced senior years.  After he died, I came across his notebooks and scraps of paper filled with humorous sayings and old-timey jokes.  To show how nimble his mind was, he had only written down the punch lines.  I would love to have the full text of these bygone, folksy jokes, now becoming a lost art.

When he wasn't telling jokes, Dad always had something witty to say.  Doctors and nurses who attended to him in his final years were often targets.  One nurse was getting information from him for his medical records, asking what he viewed as nosey questions about his lifestyle.  When she asked him if he smoked, he retorted "No!  Do YOU?"  They quickly learned to treat him with a degree of respect.

My dad loved his garage.  In warm weather, he could be found out there wearing one of his favorite tee shirts, full of holes.  Admittedly, he felt cooler in those tee shirts, but it didn't look very "cool."  Hanging on the wall and on every shelf and in every corner were tools he had accumulated for absolute decades, including a huge, unmovable plug-in circular wood saw that took up way too much space.  He had antique farm equipment items that went back to the mule-pulling-the-plow days.  The garage was organized in a cluttered sort of a way, so somehow he always managed to find what he was looking for.  There was barely enough room to park his old Ford van among all the tools, cast-off lumber and pieces of pipe or scrap metal--anything he thought he might use someday.  Most people would have long since thrown it all away.

Zooming with great granddaughters on his Rascal
If someone needed it, Dad could usually make it--handy things such as a smooth, sturdy stool, exactly the right height for my petite mom to step up easily into their van.  It had always been this way.  Dad was the fixer, the inventor, the provider, the protector.  When he could no longer walk as quickly as he wanted, he used a Rascal (motorized chair).  It made my head spin watching him zooming by on his Rascal, cutting through my back yard to who knows where.  We had three acres between us, so he had plenty of room to zoom.

I was so accustomed to his mobility and sharpness of mind, his attaining a very old age crept up on me and on him.  As I look back on it now, perhaps I was comparing him to my mom, who had required intense care giving prior to her death.  Dad had most things under control, including the foresight to decide on his own to stop driving at ninety-one for safety reasons.

And then one day when my husband and I were away on a short trip, I received a phone call from a neighbor.  Dad had fallen during the night.  Before we left, I'd made arrangements for someone to check on him daily.  And hospice came by regularly to attend to him.  Unfortunately he became disoriented due to the fall and couldn't get back up, so he had been on the floor for several hours before he was found.  We rushed home.  Friends had taken him to the hospital.  He suffered no injuries from the fall, but hospital tests disclosed a chronic severe infection that his worn-out body could not overcome.  Three weeks later, he died.  It happened so quickly and unexpectedly.

Dad wanted with all his heart to be with the Lord.  He often had vivid and colorful dreams of the Holy City.  He joyfully anticipated the bliss of his first conscious moment in eternity.  It was foremost on his mind.  So maybe it was time....

In retrospect, how I wish we had all been more protective, even though he seemed to be so self-sufficient.  It would have been circumspect to have arranged for my dad to have a senior emergency alert device.  Dad and I had discussed it briefly on a couple of occasions.  He simply didn't feel he needed one just yet, and I agreed.  And it remains a mystery to me why, through he had medical care, the fatal infection was not detected earlier on while it was still at a curable stage.  I suppose we were all fooled by his quickness of mind and mobility at age ninety-three.  He seemed fine....

I felt I was giving my dad the best possible care.  I tried hard to help him not feel old and in the way.  He valued his independence living in his own home and I wanted to honor that.  Being so close to the situation, I had blind spots.  He and I assumed he could handle the unexpected.  He always had.  But he was in his nineties, after all.  In the final analysis, there were extra measures that could have been taken which might have extended his life or at least minimized the distress of the fall.  Access to an emergency alert network was needed and maybe an assisted living environment was also in order.

If any of you have a loved one or know someone full of years and still going strong, try to gently reason with and explain to them how they can make care giving easier by accepting additional assistance even though it may appear to be premature.  And let's face it, there are occasions when it may be necessary for the care giver to make an unpopular decision for the good of everyone concerned.  Better to be safe than sorry.

The sunset of life can be beautiful....
Joyce Catherwood (c) 2011

Monday, August 1, 2011

Credit or Debit?

A favorite comic Pickles by Brian Crane
"What kind of gas are you putting in your car?" asked a senior citizen who pulled up on the other side of the pump I was using.  It struck me as somewhat of an odd question to ask, but I didn't give it a lot of thought and instead found myself wondering if I was older or younger than he was.  This is what I do now that I'm a senior.  My husband and I look at other golden-agers in restaurants or the mall and say to each other, "Do you think we look younger or older than they do?"  My husband usually thinks we look younger.  I usually think we look older.  Not sure if there is some profound meaning in that or not....

Back to the story:  "Regular," I replied as I continued filling my tank, trying to avoid having a heart attack as I watched the dollar amount soar.  In the meantime, out of the corner of my eye I noticed  several times the older gentleman opened the door to his car and spoke to his wife, then returned to the pump, but was still not using it.  When I finished, it occurred to me maybe I should check with him to see if his pump was working.  So I peered around the gas pump and asked if there was something wrong.  He quietly said no and mentioned he just wasn't accustomed to a pump offering three types of gas.

As I drove off it dawned on me, perhaps he actually needed some help.  Duh!!  This delayed reaction is typical of me.  Sometimes I simply don't think on the spot.  I turned into an adjacent parking lot and I could see him standing there motionless, staring at the gas pump screen.  His wife was still inside their car, impatiently banging her cane on the closed car window, trying to get his attention.  So I turned around, went back, got out of my car and asked him If I could help.  He said there were so many buttons and he must have pressed the wrong one because he couldn't get it to work.  So there we were, glaring at the screen, trying to figure out what went wrong.  I had a difficult time finding the cancel button because I didn't have my glasses on.  Big help I was!  By that time, the attendant came out and offered to assist him.  So I left.

This may be difficult for younger people to comprehend, but it is easy for many of us to get confused by a computer screen.  Credit or debit?  Pay inside or outside?  What's your zip code?  Do you want a car wash?  Do you want a receipt?  This poor elderly man was totally befuddled by it all and the "simple" task of filling a gas tank made him feel inadequate.  In his prime, he could have been a professor or CEO.  But it doesn't matter who he had been, the fact is he now no longer has the same quickness of mind.  To find himself at a stage in life where he needs help to buy gas is, I'm sure, devastating to the ego, disconcerting and discouraging.  I certainly should have been more observant and offered to assist him much sooner than I did.

By the way, I concluded he was older than me, in case you are wondering....

Little old couple "lost" in the neighborhood
It brought to mind an incident that occurred about two years ago.  My husband and I walk for exercise every day.  We live in Texas where it tends to get blistering hot in the summer, so we search for streets to walk on that have some shade trees.  One day we were standing in the middle of a neighborhood intersection talking animatedly and pointing here and there as we analyzed which street had more shade.  A younger lady in an SUV stopped and very kindly asked us if we needed some help and were we OK.  We told her we were fine, but as she drove away we quickly realized we must have looked somewhat bewildered and lost.  She probably assumed we had wandered away from the nearby nursing home.  Happily this was not the situation.  But she did exactly the right thing by noticing, being concerned and stopping to make sure.

I guess what I am trying to say is try to be alert, observant and sensitive to the circumstances surrounding elderly people.  They may need some assistance and are too embarrassed to ask.  Sometimes they feel they are in the way or being a nuisance.  There is always the risk of insulting them because they may not welcome intervention.  But if help is offered discreetly, in a caring, friendly way, it is unlikely to be interpreted as an insult.

As the Son of man on this earth, Jesus was keenly observant and saw so many things that went right over the disciples' heads.  For example, from a distance, he  noticed a grieving widow's tears as she trudged along in her son's funeral procession.  His heart went out to her.  He immediately stepped away from the massive crowd that had been following him, went right over to her, and said gently "Don't cry."  Then raised her son from the dead.

Admittedly, helping a slight, timid older man at a gas pump doesn't begin to measure up to what Jesus did.  But the point is, Jesus noticed the widow's plight and compassionately lightened her burden.  To one degree or another, we can do the same if we become aware and responsive to the needs of those of an advanced age, doing whatever it takes to help them avoid feeling inadequate, old and in the way.

The sunset of life can be beautiful....
(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011

Monday, July 18, 2011

"C'mon, Mom, unlock the door!"

Mom and me.  She passed away in 2002.

"C'mon, Mom, unlock the door!"  I pleaded as I rang the door bell.  Nothing...  I knocked loudly, then rattled the door knob.  Still nothing.  I knew she was at home.  I had noticed her peeking through the window as I walked over from my house which was next door to hers.  She had a perfect view from her small bathroom window and often kept track of my comings and goings from that little perch of hers.  "What in the world did I do?" I asked myself out loud.  I was only coming to do some housecleaning.  I had tried to call her before leaving my house, but she refused to answer the phone.  I knew I was in trouble somehow.  I wasn't sure where my dad was at this juncture--probably taking his afternoon nap.

An inveterate caregiver in overdrive, I tended to wholeheartedly jump in there and get things done, a bit like the Energizer Bunny.  I had purposely hired someone to clean my own house so I would have the time to clean my mom's.  There was no way my parents would allow anyone else to come into their home and do the job, especially if it cost money.  And their house was no easy task.  They never wanted to throw anything away.  There were knick knacks and mementos scattered all over, everything from 1920's salt and pepper shakers to a rock collection that came from the California Mojave Desert, all collecting dust.

Occasionally I tried to discard an item I thought no longer had sentimental or monetary value.  Big mistake!  My parents would fetch it out of the trash and place it right back where it "belonged."  These were usually things that were broken or had long since lost their identity.  My mom often wandered wistfully from room to room looking at her things.  She was unable to do much else in her late 80's.  Her memory was fading rapidly, but now and again, as she handled some of her little treasures, she would have happy flashbacks of days gone by.  So most things I left undisturbed, except to dust.

Mom at home with beloved great grandchildren
I always felt pleased with myself after I had done the housecleaning, assuming I was being such a big help to my mom.  So the day she locked me out, I was in for a big revelation.  Once I persuaded her to open the door, I followed her to her favorite rocking chair in the sun room of their house.  This was where my parents spent most of their time.  The huge windows provided a view of woods and wildlife and neighbors.  They especially enjoyed watching one neighbor who always wore a huge straw hat in the mid-day sun as he mowed his acreage on his rider mower.  For some reason this was major entertainment for them.  Not sure why....

When I asked her why she was mad at me, my mom said, "You insult me by coming over here and cleaning my house all the time.  My house is not dirty!"  Hello!  This was news to me.  Though her memory would come and go and she had serious health issues, this clearly did not prevent Mom from feeling embarrassed because she could no longer do her job.  My eager-beaver demeanor drove her nuts.  Of course her house did need attention, but it was her house. She had always been the housekeeper until she became frail.  There are other ways I could have approached the jobs at hand and been more respectful of her territory, rather than blow in like a tornado, vacuuming and dusting and washing and cleaning.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Gospel story about sisters Mary and Martha.  In one instance, Martha ran around frantically trying to prepare a meal for Jesus and be a super-hostess. She was quite upset with her sister, Mary, who instead of helping her, sat attentively at Jesus' feet listening to his words of life.  Jesus told Martha she was overly involved in the preparations and had the wrong focus.  Though the lesson in that particular story carries a much deeper spiritual meaning, Martha's well-intended, but misguided zeal described me perfectly.  I rushed about focusing on getting things done, overlooking the age-related emotional needs of my mom.

The moral of the story?  Tread lightly when you find yourself with an opportunity to help an aging senior, particularly if you are on their territory.  I thought Mom would be relieved and overjoyed to have someone take over and do all the work.  But I had forgotten it was her house.  Keeping it up had been an integral part of her identity and no longer being able to do so meant her life, as she once knew it, was slipping away.  Being unaware of this dynamic makes it easy for a caregiver to step on toes or come across as dismissive or insulting, and this can cause an elderly person to feel expendable, old and in the way.

The tasks can still be accomplished by using tact and diplomacy, easing into situations rather than showing up, mop and broom in hand, and vigorously invading their territory.

Oh, and just so you know...Mom never locked me out again.

The sunset of life can be beautiful.....

For more on story of Mary and Martha, see post "This Sister of Mine"
(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011