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

Friday, July 1, 2011

"There she is!"

My dad at age 90

Every time I walked in the door, Dad would clap his hands once, look really pleased and say, "There she is!"  He was always sitting in his not-so-gently worn, green upholstered recliner, surrounded by small tables piled high with Bibles and commentaries.  In front of him was a tray-type contraption he had made that lay across the arms of the chair, outfitted with a built-in pencil/pen holder.  Sticking out of all his books and Bibles were those little stiff advertising cards people receive in the mail. Dad used them as book marks.  It seems every other page was "book marked" because every other page was important to him.  Behind his chair was a heavy, rusty stand-up lamp that must have been at least 50 years old, with a long chain to turn it on and off.

Sidewalk from Dad's door to mine.
I don't remember exactly when he started greeting me that way but I had become so accustomed to it, it barely had an impact on me.  It's funny the things one gets used to.  Now that dad is gone, I can't begin to tell you what I would give to receive that greeting just one more time.  In his 90's my dad was living alone, having lost his life partner of  70 years.  His little house was next door to mine, with an unusually long sidewalk from my door to his, a sidewalk he specifically designed and had put in.  Through a sliding glass door near his chair, he would expectantly watch for me coming down the walkway, which I did several times a day to check on him.

He always wanted me to sit down so he could tell me all about what he had been reading, or a "new truth" he had discovered from his research.  And sometimes, I would accommodate him.  But, thinking I didn't have the time, most of my visits were for the purpose of making him something to eat, or cleaning his house or washing his clothes or feeding Maggie, the little stray dog he adopted.  So I busily went about getting things done and I know he was happy to have some company, but what he really wanted was for someone to listen to him.  He would talk to anyone, including strangers, and the first question he would ask was "Are you a Christian?"  Then no matter what the reply, he would immediately say, "Sit down, let's talk!"

My dad's education ended with the 6th grade.  But that didn't stop him from enjoying learning.  His mind was bursting with ideas.  He was continually inventing things or streamlining existing machines to make them more efficient.  He could fix just about anything.  His interests were numerous, from bee keeping and smoking meat to solar energy.  Right into his early 90's, he would follow construction workers or repairmen who came on his property, asking questions or giving advice....actually mostly giving advice.  As his physical strength ebbed away, studying his beloved Bible and all his well-marked books became his main focus.  And that suited him just fine, because that was his favorite thing anyway.  He died at age 93.

My mom and dad,  married 70 years
In the course of his life, there were occasions when his voice had been more readily heard.  Never on a grand scale, of course.  However, as the years went by, his stage grew smaller and smaller.  Yet deep inside there was still so much he wanted to say.  I realize that now.  He needed to be re-assured that what he said still mattered.  The need to be validated doesn't diminish with age.  In fact, it increases.  In my dad's case, he eventually became basically housebound and had few visitors, so if I didn't provide a format for his voice to be heard, then it was as though the spotlights were turned off, the curtains closed and the audience had left.  And that happened way too often.  I was simply too caught up in all the physical care that I thought "needed" to be done for him.

If I had it to do over again, I would spend loads more time just sitting and listening.  And even if I didn't agree, I would still listen.  Even if it didn't make any sense, I would still listen.  Some elderly people have few friends and no family visitors and therefore no stage for their voice to be heard.  Already constrained by aging bodies, the added frustration of not being "heard" is discouraging and demeaning.

It is fascinating to consider the reasons God the Father used a devout old man named Simeon to bless the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple to be consecrated.  Simeon had waited all his life for the redemption of Israel.  He had been given a special revelation that he would not die before seeing the Messiah with his own eyes.  When Jesus' parents entered the temple, Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms, praised God and pronounced a blessing on him and his parents.  The Scripture says Mary and Joseph marveled at his words.  What Simeon said mattered.  He could now die in peace, honored and validated.

If it is within your power to provide a listening format for a senior citizen, I hope you will do so.  Don't leave it up to the caregivers.  They can grow weary.  The bigger the stage, the better.  Otherwise they may spend their final years feeling useless, old and in the way.  And they will wonder: "  Did you hear me?  Did what I say matter to you?  Was my life worthwhile?"

The sunset of life can be beautiful....

(c) Joyce Catherwood 2011
Photos by Joyce Catherwood