Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories
A small breeze sifts through the screen, then sneaks around a cracked open window, carrying the rich scent of fall harvest from fields surrounding Fargo. Dad's horn-rimmed glasses sit on the tip of his nose, well below his foggy hazel eyes. There's a sore forming on his parchment cheek, evidence of a long ago summer spent digging fossils under searing prairie sun. His square jaw nearly pokes through his skin, while his gray-brown hair fuzzes up in tufts like a pile of down.
He smiles that deep, crinkly smile of my childhood, and gestures toward the books squeezed against his TV: law, debate, chemistry, physiology, philosophy. Toward the degrees and awards crowding the wall; many of them computer generated, made-by-loving-hands-at-home evidence of his delusional accomplishments. Toward the briefcases stuffed with letters written, forged and delivered by his personal representative of suspended reality – me.
"Thank you for helping an old man's fantasy," he says.
For a moment, my dad of old emerges from the confused layers of his damaged brain. He looks into my eyes and he understands. A couple of bricks fall from my shoulders, lightening my load.
"I'm glad I can help," I say next to his ear.
I put his razor in the drawer and set up his CD player with The Best of Benny Goodman. His lower plate glued, I check for feedback on his hearing aid. The batteries are okay.
"You look good today," I say. "See you tomorrow at lunch. Vaya con Dios." I pick up my coat and ratty, rose-strewn duffle, then blow him a kiss.
"Vaya con Dios," he says. Go with God. A remnant of his once fluent Spanish, now faded to a few lonely words that sweeten his disjointed speech.
I wind my way down the hall, through wheelchairs, med cart and walkers, nestled in a cocoon of creamy papered walls touched with teal and pink, oak furniture, nostalgic pictures and lace. The aroma of coffee sails above the vinegary odor of morning meds. A toaster pops in the kitchenette. Plates of bacon and scrambled eggs, dishes of oatmeal, and multiple side dishes of prunes are set on the tables in front of residents no longer interested in food.
As I walk toward my mother's room, I see faces that are as familiar to me as my friends'.
"Hello, Jesse! You look so pretty in your pink dress!" I say. Little Jesse, whose age and weight approximate one another, looks at me.
"Are you going down yet?" she asks. Jesse's afraid of taking the elevator alone.
"Not this time," I tell her, "but you can go with me when I do.
"Hi, Selma," I say. Selma, now in her seventies, has been a child all her life. She holds out her arms when she sees me go by.
"I need a huugg," she says.
"I need one too, Selma." I hug her and move on.
"Hi, Sarita," I say as I walk by the nurse who is coaxing Lloyd to eat some tasty medicinal mush. Sarita's smile charms him and he gums down the brown goo. "Is Alice still at breakfast?" I ask, knowing my mother-in-law usually eats in the dining room at this time.
"She went down quite awhile ago," she says, wiping Lloyd's chin.
"Morning, Sandy," I say as I walk by an aide hurrying toward a call light. "I see Dad needs his shampoo. I'll bring it tomorrow."
"Well, it's about time!" Sandy answers. "You never do a thing around here." She laughs her hearty, healing laugh, and shakes her head in mock disgust.
I reach my mother's room at the end of the hall. She looks fragile and small in her scaled-down recliner. Her silver hair still holds a bit of its natural curl – the curl I didn't get. Her burgundy embroidered sweatshirt with its little pink collar blends with the pinks and blues of the room. She has a good start on the crossword puzzle in The Forum.
"I couldn't believe how clear Dad was this morning," I tell her. "Underneath it all he really does know we're playing a game." Her eyes fill.
"I think he does," she says.
"I brought a bunch of stuff today." I pull out a huge blue jar of skin cream, a tube of toothpaste, and three clean glasses – she likes glass, not plastic, so I take home her dirty ones and bring her clean ones each day.
"Oh, I brought some popcorn, in case that sounds good. They'll pop it in the microwave whenever you want it.
"I'll get you some hot coffee while I'm down getting your ice," I tell her as I unpack her cheese and crackers. After throwing some clothes in the laundry, I cross the hall to the stairway door, push the alarm release, open the door, do a quick bend and swoop from the waist, slip under the protective strap and go down to the first floor nutrition center.
Rushing ice cubes clatter and crash from the machine into my plastic container. I pop a tiny sliver into my mouth, cover the bowl, take a cup from the rack and pour some coffee, then carry it all to the dining room to see if Alice is ready to go back to third floor.
Alice, my mother-in-law, sits at her table, clear white hair sparkly in a sea of dull grays and yellow-whites, her cornflower blue sweater buttoned high around her chin, yellow terrycloth bib rumpled in her lap. She's holding her spoon in mid-air, staring straight ahead at yesterday. As I walk up beside her, she startles, then laughs.
"You caught me," I say. "I was trying to sneak up on you! Are you done eating? Did you have enough?"
"Oh, I don't know." she says.
"It looks like you had a good breakfast," I say. "Why don't you come up with me? Your church Messenger came and I put it in your room. You'll want to look it over." Alice nods, and I help her up. She looks around as I aim her toward the elevator, then begins pushing her walker ahead.
"Hey! Hey, Bluey! Take me up with you!"
I glance down at my denim shirt and know that I am being summoned. Victoria has been sitting guard by the lobby door, short, straight gray hair and scowling face set above her favorite red sweater. She's in her very personal spot with the side table pulled up the exact number of inches. Now she's decided it's time to go back to third floor and tell them what a horrible job they are doing in this place.
"Sure, Victoria, I'll take you up," I say. After putting the ice and coffee in a corner of the elevator, I unlock the brakes on Victoria's wheelchair and push her in. "Watch out for my feet!" she screams. "That big oaf, don't let him near me! Hey! Don't let him on!" She flails her arms indicating Frank with his cart and oxygen tank. "Don't touch my feet! My feet! Take me up and put me by the drinking fountain!"
I settle Victoria in the elevator and help Alice scoot herself on, placing her as far from Victoria as possible, just in case the queen starts swinging. Frank wisely decides to wait for the next round.
"Victoria, where are Sissy's pennies?" I ask. She looks at the doll in her lap and probes the little pockets of the checkered apron.
"Somebody stole ‘em!" she growls. "I'm gonna sue!"
"Oh, I'll bet the pennies just fell out," I say.
"No, they didn't!"
"Here. I've got some pennies." I take two pennies out of my jeans pocket and slip one in each of Sissy's pockets. Victoria grabs my head and kisses me. I kiss her back. The elevator stops.
"We're here, Alice. Do you want your chair by the elevator or do you want to go down to your room?"
"About half way, I think," Alice says. I try to read her and decide that maybe her room would be best since she has some mail she can look at.
"Let's go down to your room," I say. "You get started and I'll catch up after I get Victoria off."
"Put me by the water fountain! No! Move me over more. A little farther! There, that's better." I leave Victoria in her spot, the exact distance from the water fountain she requires.
I retrieve the ice and coffee and catch up with Alice, who is standing in the middle of the hall gazing. "They stretch the hall longer every day, don't they?" I say. She laughs and starts walking once more. We inch our way down the hall until we get to her room. The last one on the left. Across the hall from Mom. Down the hall from Dad.
"Here, I'll turn on your light so you can read a bit," I say. I arrange her night stand, water her mum and coax her to sit down and rest her legs. She thinks awhile and finally sits. She smiles and looks toward her newsletter.
"Bye," I say. "I'll be here for lunch tomorrow. You've got chapel this afternoon. Someone will remind you." I wave, then pick up the ice and coffee. Across the hall at Mom's, I leave the coffee on her table, deposit the ice in her cooler, and pick up my jacket and tote.
"See you tomorrow," I say.
"What's a three letter word that means "way cool"? she asks.
"Huh?" I say. "I'll call you if I think of it. You call me if you decide to cheat or figure it out. See you at noon tomorrow."
Once more I move toward the stairs. I push the alarm release and try the knob. The alarm shrieks. My face burns as I punch in the code. Scrambled. In answer to the flashing lights and air-raid squall, three pair of feet thunder toward me. I punch the star button and re-enter the code. Silence.
"Soorrry," I call. I open the door, bend and swoop my way under the strap and down the steps, dodge residents as I make my way through the hall, and out the door. The sun is still high enough to share some warmth, and I let my jacket fly. Tomorrow, I'll visit at noon.
"Am I doing this right?" Steve asks when I talk with him about how caring for his mother is affecting his life.
"I do it because it's the right thing to do," Ann says when she tells me her story. "He simply can't deal with it," Susan says of her brother.
"I had to think who needs help the worst? – my parents or my kids," Julie says.
Baby boomers have questions. They want to talk. They want to talk about how to do this life. One in four of us is taking some responsibility for the care of the older generation, and that number is growing as better medical care helps people live longer, often in poor mental or physical health. Unlike past generations, many boomers had their children at a later age, more women have outside jobs, families are separated by physical distance and multiple marriages. So sometimes we get frustrated. Or sad. Or just plain tired. Often we simply need an empathetic ear.
Minding Our Elders is our way of lending an ear to one another. It's been percolating for all the years that I've been caring for our family's older generation. During ten of those years I spread my time between my family members still in their own homes and those in Rosewood. I became well acquainted with firefighters, the emergency room, monitoring devices, home health services and clinic staff members. Evenings, I'd live in fear of the ring of the phone. The fear that the call was another emergency. It often was.
Then my mother, the last elderly member of my family at home, went into Rosewood. My time spent at Rosewood on Broadway was substantial enough that most of the residents and an occasional staff member thought I worked there. To find a bra that needed mending, half a hearing aid, or an upper dental plate with a chipped tooth in my pocket was simply normal. My daily tote to the home would include soda, wine, cheese, candy, magazines, mail, computer-generated awards and degrees, favorite toiletries.
As I've traveled this road, I've met other boomers doing the same. We've visited on the snail-paced elevator at the nursing home. We've shared our stories while ducking the wind by the vestibule door. We've cried leaning against our cars in the parking lot. When we greet each other in the grocery store, we say, "How's it going?" We all know what it is. We've been torn between love and exhaustion, dedication and guilt. Most of all, we've wanted to do the right thing.
Listening to my friends' stories helped pump me up. I'm told my stories help them as well. So we're offering our naked, sometimes painful, stories to you, with the hope that you, too, may benefit. A few people have requested that I drape their stories in a towel of anonymity, and I've complied by changing some names and identifying characteristics. We think you'll understand.