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 Texas : Features : Columns : "The Girl Detective's Theory of Everything"

No Place for Sissies

by Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
My husband and I were at the store yesterday evening picking up some things for his parents. Normally they would have been with us, but because we’d had a long day of doctor’s appointments and it was their dinner time, we’d left them at their Assisted Living with some hamburgers and strawberry milkshakes and ran out to the store without them.

As we left the checkout lane with one bag filled with cookies, candy, apple sauce and orange juice and another with disposable underpants I started giggling. Mike looked at me quizzically, “What?” he asked.

“Well, I was just wondering if the cashier was trying to figure out which one of us was incontinent and which one needed to be tested for diabetes.”

But it was really only funny for a minute. Bette Davis is famously quoted as saying, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” And that is surely so. But I’m here to tell you, if you haven’t had the dubious pleasure of discovering it for yourself, that taking care of elderly parents is no picnic either. And it is an experience that more and more of us are going to be sharing as the years pass.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics – because there is nothing like some hot, juicy statistics to get the blood pumping – in 1950 there were 3.9 million people in the United States 75 years old and older. In 2000 there were 16.6 million. In 2005 there were 18.2 million people 75 years old and older. An estimated 4.5 million of those folks have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which further complicates things.

All of those 18.2 million people need to go the doctor, buy new shoes, visit family, have meals which are not only hot and nutritious but meals that they are willing to eat, and clean clothes, and help with whatever activities of daily living they need help with, and for these things they need not only the help of professional care-givers, but of family members as well. That’s where we come in, those of us who comprise the tail-end of the Baby Boomers. Just as we usher the last child out the door and into the future we find ourselves re-welcoming our parents into our lives in a new and often difficult way. We are faced with the dilemma of parents who cannot safely live on their own anymore, who cannot safely drive, who are not able to make the decisions for themselves that they once made. We are faced with a double edged sword – we have the responsibility to care for our aged parents while still respecting them as adults with the adult need to participate in decisions such as where to live and what to do. And the fact of the matter is that it is very, very hard.

When you are taking care of your children it is well within accepted boundaries to tell them, “No, you have to wear the brown shoes, you have to take a bath now, you have to finish your carrots before you get some pie.” But just try telling your mother-in-law or your father or your Uncle Fred those things. Yesterday I put my mother-in-law’s shoes on her for her trip to the doctor. She didn’t like those shoes and took them off. I reminded her that because her feet were swollen those were the only shoes that fit right now and put them back on her. She reminded me that she didn’t like those shoes and took them off. I reminded her that it is January and she has to wear shoes when she goes out and put them on her. She reminded me that she didn’t like those shoes. My father-in-law hollered in from the other room, “Just put the durned shoes on,” which reminded her of quite a few things she needed to say to him. And at that point, what are you going to do? You can’t threaten your in-laws with a spat on the butt. You can’t put them in the corner to think about their behavior for as many minutes as they are old. You can’t sit them down on a “time out” stool. None of that goes over so well with grown people.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. I just kept putting her shoes back on, trying to distract her with the promise of an outing, trying to hurry her, trying to ignore the advise I was getting from Grandpa (but in a nice way) until we were finally out the door, down the hall and halfway to the car. At which point she reminded me that she didn’t like those shoes and started to take them off.

It was a long, long day and by the time it was over I had gritted my teeth so hard and for such an extended period of time that I felt like I had lockjaw. Don’t get me wrong. I love my in-laws very much. I am happy to be able to help them whenever and however I can help. And frankly, Alzheimer’s Disease has improved my relationship with my mother-in-law a lot because one of the things she has forgotten is that she never liked me and that I was destined to ruin her son’s life. When she and I are out we actually have a pretty good time together. In between trying to get her to keep her seatbelt and her shoes on. But that doesn’t make it easy. And the bad news for our kids is that there are more of us than there are of our parents. So just as we taught them by example when they were little, we have to trust that they are learning by example how to care for elderly relatives. We have to trust our futures to them and trust that we have shown them how to be patient, kind and loving.

© Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
"The Girl Detective's Theory of Everything" January 9, 2009 Column
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