My husband is 12 years older than me, and most of our friends are even older than that. We had lunch yesterday with a couple we’ve known for many years. John (not his real name) is 90, and Mary (not her real name) is in her late 80’s. There were a number of years when John took care of Mary because of illness, and now she is taking care of him. Recently, they hired a woman to help them with John’s care. The one thing John won’t let the caregiver do is give him a bath. We talked yesterday over lunch about the difficulties we all face as we grow old.
I think we all agreed that the worst part of growing old is losing your dignity and privacy. There are just certain things that are absolutely demeaning about the old age thing. While I’m only 58, a couple of years ago I experienced a small (short-lived, thankfully) taste of what our friends are experiencing — and I didn’t like it one little bit. I fell down a flight of stairs at work and broke both ankles, confining me to a wheelchair and a recliner for three months. During that difficult time, I developed pancreatitis twice and finally a gallbladder operation was in order. This was not my finest hour.
Part of this time, I was not able to maneuver to the bathroom, so sponge baths took place, and a portable toilet was my companion. As if it wasn’t difficult enough to strip me of my dignity, my family decided it would be a great idea to have a party. I think it was Mother’s Day (which I hate anyway). Every time I had to use the “facilities” — such as they were — everyone had to leave the room. If that wasn’t bad enough, while my family was there, nature called for more than the yellow stuff. So in addition to the daily humiliation of my husband or daughter having to empty the portable toilet, I now had the entire extended family coming back into my family room to “that odor.”
To make matters worse, the nerve endings in my right foot were completely messed up from the surgery to put a piece of metal in my ankle, and I didn’t realize that the burning feeling on my toes was actually a bad case of athlete’s feet instead of something related to the surgery. I couldn’t see my toes because of the cast on my leg. Listerine is the only thing that I’ve ever found to cure my athlete’s feet, so I was now forced to let my daughter place cotton balls soaked in Listerine between my smelly toes.
While I understand that my family was trying to “cheer me up” with this party, there is a time to back away and allow someone to keep their dignity. I’m actually thankful for the experience, however, because it was sort of a “trial run” for things to come in our future. I don’t know which one of us will become ill first as we age, but we now know somewhat what to expect. It will be a cold day in hell before I will allow dignity to be entirely stripped for either one of us.
Maybe there is no way to actually “plan” for growing old, but there are certain things that we can do to alleviate some of the stress and depression. Thinking about this today, and thinking about the horrendous three-month experience, I came up with a list of things that I can do right now to make things easier later.
1. Educate our children about our wishes.
2. Have frank discussions about the challenges that are ultimately in the future.
3. Establish some rules for visitation.
4. Make our home as easily maneuverable and clutter-free as possible.
5. Have a plan to allow fresh air and sunshine accessibility to someone who is ill.
6. Have a plan to allow the ill person to get out of the house on a regular basis, even if just to sit outside.
7. Be on the lookout for shower aides, etc., that we can store in the garage for that unexpected need.
8. Save money for a laptop computer for a time when the desktop can’t be accessed.
9. Discover hobbies or crafts that can be accomplished even when heads are foggy from pain killers.
10. Keep our minds active now to slow the onset of any possible dementia.
Sometimes growing old just stinks, but it doesn’t have to be the most depressing time of your lives. I’m determined with a little planning we can grow old gracefully.