Life is hard and then . . .

God’s Little Waiting Room, FL — A friend of mine who is one of the bravest and strongest people I know wrote an unexpectedly heartening blog telling a conversation she recently had with her dad about how he came to live in an assisted living home, or rather, about why she put him there.

I remember that time well because it was memorably traumatic — for her, for anyone who imagined being her, which, unless orphaned, we all might be — and because it wasn’t that long ago.

He didn’t remember it, because among the other problems of old age he has, including no teeth and a catheter, he has memory loss. So he was sorry to hear what a hard time he gave her about it back then. That was a very nice sign that he is comfortable, maybe even content now. He has a flat screen tv. The staff calls him “Dr.” because he has a Ph.D. He gets regular meals, and his place is kept tidy for him. My friend visits weekly, bringing her son, her dad’s lively little grandchild. They had a recent outbreak of norovirus there, and they seem to have lost his teeth (or at least failed to prevent him from losing them) more than once recently. But considering the general untold suffering around the world, and the current state of old age — eternal, and yet generally unplanned for — my friend can feel good about his situation, and he can feel good about raising a girl who did right by him.

In the meantime, as my sibling and I sometimes tell each other, we are luckier. My mother has all her marbles — and then some. She is in robust health. There is very little wrong with her that wasn’t in some form, something she learned to live with long ago. That includes:

  1. She tends to dwell on the unchangeable past;
  2. Everyone she grew up or spent a meaningful portion of her life with, aside from us is dead, including her younger brother, and our father, or missing a few marbles themselves;
  3. She tends to be sad, brought on by 1. and 2, and she was melancholy to begin with;
  4. All of this keeps her from doing things she would like, including keeping her home comfortable, and from getting around much, so she is in a vicious circle;
  5. She has no intention of changing. Never has, never will.

In spite of all of those things she is one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, one of the most thoughtful and moral, and best read. She has always been ahead of her peers, in my view, in her more radical views of the conditions that breed classism, sexism, greed. Like all parents she has terribly annoying faults that I could go on and on about, but then I might leave something out. In spite of those faults I am often very proud of her. She also is my first phone call, to this day, when I have a problem.

Still her situation makes me miserable. I worry that the vicious circle will spiral downward, faster than it needs to and I worry about losing her. Her intransigence makes me crazy. I would like to see her through to a comfortable dignified old age.

My father, an ebullient eccentric, worked for the man his whole life and took great pride in the result: “Your mother (from whom he was separated longer than he was married to: 20 years together, 30 apart) can live in enormous dignity for the rest of her life,” he used to say.

Not exactly, but it’s not like he could have done much more than he did. Doctors and nurses talk to her like she’s retarded sometimes. Sometimes they talk to her like she’s annoying and retarded, which hardly seems right, and which since she’s only one of those, she notices. Doctors, the grocery store, the health food store, the store where nice things to buy are, are a good long drive away, and she gets tired more easily and rightly is increasingly cautious about driving long distances.

Keeping her household tidy is a challenge with her limited mobility, and let’s face it, boredom of a lifetime of housework, which she was never much into to begin with. Her cats keep her sane, but they also drive her nuts with their demands: litter, vet visits, let me in, let me out . . .

Life is hard. It was always hard, and it gets harder the longer it goes on.

As one of a kind as she is, her situation isn’t. And yet we have a giant generation of old people, as we barrel towards that end ourselves, whose needs seem to be a big surprise.

Maybe some day, the greed that isn’t afraid to say its name this election season will win out and we really will just euthanize everyone on retirement. Or when they can’t pass the driver license test anymore. Or have trouble finding their car keys . . .

But instead, what if we paid our taxes joyfully, knowing that instead of stuffing the pockets of people like “Rominy” (as my mother just called him), they were for us, our parents, the next generation, too. What if when my mom makes a doctors appointment, she was told, “thank you, Madam, the car will pick you up half an hour before.” What if they went on to say, “Would you like us to send the house cleaning service over while you’re here?” and “The support group of grieving old people will be meeting that afternoon, in the garden, if you’d like to stay.” And that’s how it would be for everyone — whether you were an heir or a house-cleaner in your prime.

That’s how it should be.  Why isn’t it?


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