There you are, just going along and living your life, when one day things seem a little off. Maybe you can’t put your finger on exactly what seems awry, but there’s a little nagging feeling. You visited your parents and their home seemed dirtier than normal. As you helped prepare dinner you noticed that your mom seemed befuddled by things that used to be automatic for her. How many times have you seen her make spaghetti sauce with the recipe that exists only in her head? This time, though, she can’t quite remember what ingredients she needs. Your dad can’t help. He went off to look for his glasses 20 minutes ago and ended up working on a project in his shop.
Your folks always tell you about their medical appointments. After all, they spend most of their time away from home sitting in one waiting room or another. When you ask which doctor they saw today they say, “You know. The one over by the, um, whatever that place is.” “And what did the doctor tell you today?” “Not much.” Okay, we’ve established that the doctor by the whatever didn’t have much to say. As you reflect on the past few months you realize that none of the doctors reportedly has anything to say, but you notice a lot of medications around the house. Some are in the kitchen, some in the bathroom, some in the bedroom, and there are a few scattered pills on the side table with the tv remote. Maybe they’re like my dad who could barely walk to my car, needed help getting in, and yet insisted, “I can still drive, you know.” In your head you say, “That thought scares me.”
A sinking feeling comes over you as you realize that nothing new is amiss. It’s just that until now you’ve been able to ignore the signs of increasing dependency in your parents. You had talked yourself into believing that they were invincible, that they were still the strong people who raised you, who were your protectors for life. Now they need help and all signs point to you. “But I’ve never raised an elder before,” you protest. Well, you probably didn’t come with a manual when you were born either, and they had to figure things out as they went along. Somehow it doesn’t seem so bad when you’re anxious for your kids to grow up and leave home. Waiting for your parents to hurry up and be on their way seems much worse, I suppose because it means you’re waiting for them to die. A lot of people find that horrifying. People who’ve been in your shoes have a much better understanding.
I haven’t gotten a copy yet, but cartoonist Roz Chast has put out a book called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? One drawing shows a picture of a woman sitting between her elderly parents on a sofa. Above her head is a sign that says, “You are here. Suck it up.” A little levity is helpful when dealing with life’s unfortunate circumstances. One of those circumstances is the fact that, as they say, no one gets out alive. I’m anxious to see Chast’s book, to see how it aligns with both my personal experience and my professional hospice and chaplaincy experience. Until my copy arrives, let’s talk about something more pleasant.