Check out the picture above.. Notice that D is missing? How can you have the alphabets and miss a letter? And how is a missing alphabet, D in my example, even relevant?
Well after 5 years of helping build an elder care company, let me list out some of my learnings – about aging parents, busy children, swimming frogs and missing Ds.
1. Children are definitely concerned about their parents.
Children, and their immediate family, at least the ones I have been fortunate to have met over the last few years, are fundamentally conscientious and do want to help their parents. There are the very conscientious ones, and the less conscientious one. But conscientious and caring nevertheless.
I have been using the word child, children, son or daughter interchangeably to denote the next of kin of the elderly person. I will use all the words but may lean towards the male pronouns, ‘he/his’ a little more as it’s probably easier to write from my point of view. I would like to add however that from my experience, largely anecdotal) in this sector, I have noticed that daughters and daughters-in-laws are usually more vigilant when it comes to their parent’s wellbeing. (I hope that also silences my younger niece, who as an anti-patriarchy vigilante, makes this world a lot more multi-dimensional and altogether better.)
2. It’s hard to keep up.
But life, with its multitude of issues, challenges and responsibilities pull people in different directions. And it is extremely difficult to keep in touch with the daily activities of your parents when they are in a different geography and possibly a different time zone. Compound that with most parent’s reticence in talking about their issues. A 15-minute chat on the phone once a week is just not enough to understand what is going on in reality. Is your mother taking her medication? Is she forgetting things? Is she able to eat her normal diet after her dentures stopped fitting well?
And why does your parent not open up. Simple. She knows that her child is successful but has so many responsibilities – demanding career, kids to manage. She doesn’t want to burden her child with further issues. She looks forward to the few minutes she has with him every week, and doesn’t want to spend it on to-dos and possible lectures from her son.
3. The Wake-up call.
It usually takes an ‘incident’ after which everyone is thrown into alien terrain. The incident is usually a life event. The announcement that mom’s brother or mama/uncle who used to visit her everyday has been asked by his doctor to stay at home as he recovers from his bypass surgery. Or, Dad, the master of the house, has had a fall, or worse has collapsed and been hospitalised. The trusted maid could have packed up and left one day. It could be a big incident or just the whisper of the news of mom forgetting to lock the main door one night.
Any such event can sound the alarm and then the son realises that he is a carer – albeit sitting in the different city. He now has to juggle, on one hand a successful career and his family, and on the other hand the job of a carer! Decisions of whether his mother is visiting the doctor, having her medicines, and knows what to do with her finances, is now the carers duty to monitor.
4. Underprepared and overwhelmed.
He realises that he has been trained for most things in his life. The best schools, colleges, and many years of experience for his day job. Hours of coaching and practice for his passions. But for his new role as that of a carer, he has had absolutely no experience. Possibly, a few strands of memory remain of when his parents cared for his grandparents while he was studying in college. The vision of his grandmother lying in bed with a rubber mat under the sheets, and the kindly doctor visiting late at night when things became really bad. But now what is it be done, that too from a different city. He can visit sometimes, but what can he do through the months and years. Is there a doctor who does home visits?
Different times, different city, different country – and no answers.
5. Too much too late, and the frog is tossed into hot water.
When the situation isn’t too good, and shit hits the ceiling, its at that time, the carer goes on the offensive. Everything he has learned in his work – creating to-dos, scheduling appointments, networking – he does in his new role. He visits his mother for 15 days, and in that period, it’s ACTION time. Doctor visits, blood works, ECG, and the works. Maids get hired, long-lost friends are pulled into the arena. Bank accounts are consolidated. At the end of the ‘vacation’, there is a triumphant son having created the perfect cocoon for his mother – maids, helpers, friends, doctor friends, medicine regimes.
But on the other side there is also a very harried parent, having suddenly seen her independence crushed by her loving son. The son who listened to her all her life is now giving her orders! Along with her failing health, and memory, she loses her identity.
Which takes me back to the missing D. The alphabets are incomplete without D. Similarly, just like the missing D, you realise that our lives have no mention of being a carer, of watching your parents die. Rites of Passage – events or ceremonies that mark important transitions in a person’s life – birth, puberty, marriage, having children, and death. I would say that caring for your parents, and living through their eventual death is a fundamental rite of passage that every person has to go through, which significantly alters his or her perspective on life and mortality. It also prepares us for our own death.
But most of us are totally unprepared for the role of the carer, sometimes trying to push the thought away by having our head in the sand. And it’s difficult. But the way forward is about being the frog, but not tossing yourself in boiling water at the very end, and instead immersing yourself earlier when the water is cool. Dip your toes in , learn to swim as the temperature rises. I promise you that preparing for this role will not get you cooked when the water gets really hot.
For like a rock climber, who has prepared well for the climb, he can stop at intervals, and take in the view. He isn’t consumed by the fragility of his position. Like the rock climber, you too would want to make the best out of the last years of your parents’ life.
This is a two-part blog that deals with caring for your parents. This is Part 2.
Part 1/Part 2
- In the last paragraph I speak about rock climbing with preparation. This thought was inspired by the excellent documentary about the ace climber Alex Honnold performing the solo climb of El Capitan. The documentary Free Solo is a must watch.