Here in my online world, Wednesday’s are the days I’ve been writing about being creative, about writing, and inspiration, and process. But in my Real World, every Wednesday is “Mom’s Day.” It the day of the week I drive into our old neighborhood and pick up my mom, take her to her favorite grocery or specialty fruit market, and the drugstore if she’s up to it. It’s the day I make sure I’m at her house to take out the garbage or do any other household things that she’s willing for me to do.
Wednesday’s are exhausting days for me. The exhaustion is partly physical - the work of helping my mom in and out of cars and stores; carrying groceries in and putting them away; taking garbage and recycling bins to the curb - it's time consuming and draining. But I’ve realized that the exhaustion is just as much emotional as it is physical. It is HARD to see my mom frail and dependent, hard to know she is in pain and lonely a lot of the time.
Hard to acknowledge that none of this will get better, and may even get worse.
Those are the things that exhaust me when I finally get home and collapse on the sofa every Wednesday, sometimes on the edge of tears.
I read a lot about aging and care taking for the elderly. I talk to friends who are in similar situations. But I haven’t written much about it.
That’s about to change. I haven’t been ready to probe the inside of my feelings about what’s happening to my mother - and to me because of it.
But I do know there is power in sharing our stories through the written word. Power for healing, for understanding, for courage to go forward with hope.
So occasionally on Wednesdays I will write about my mom. About getting old, and being strong in spite of it all.
About what it means to take care of someone who spent their life taking care of you.
One of my mother’s close friends attempted suicide last week. This lady, who is in her mid-80’s, has been under the care of a psychiatrist for over a year. She was being medicated with a variety of anti-anxieties and anti-depressants, was working with a therapist - and yet, still, a suicide attempt. And now, hospitalization.
I feel for this poor lady, I really do. But I also feel sorry for my mom. For the past decade she has been losing one friend or family member after another, watching them succumb to all the typical maladies associated with old age: strokes, cancer, dementia, broken bones, pneumonia. My mother understands these diseases, she accepts their existence, even though she fears each one of them and inevitably worries about which one of them might be lying in wait for her.
But depression and mental illness - that’s a tough one for her to grasp. For people of her generation, there was no time for “sitting around feeling sorry for yourself.” If you were down in the dumps, well - get up and DO something. Bake a cake. Paint a room. Do some gardening. Go shopping. And suicide? “How could you think of doing that to your family?” my mom says, bewildered at the thought of intentionally causing pain to people who love you.
“People who are so depressed don’t think clearly,” I told her. “They can’t see anything but their own sorrow and sadness. Sometimes, they think their family will be better off without them."
“I suppose,” she replied. But I don’t think she was convinced.
Nor does she understand WHY this particular friend was depressed in the first place. After all, her husband was alive and well (plus he did all the cooking and cleaning!), they still had their home, plenty of money, their kids were all grown and doing well. “What’s there to be depressed about?” she said on more than one occasions.
My mom’s skepticism aside, depression and suicidal thoughts and actions among the elderly are not unusual. Suicide rates for people over age 65 are reportedly higher than the national average. I hate to know that anyone I care about is depressed: it’s an insidious, life-grabbing disease, and it takes a toll on every member of the family. But I particularly hate knowing elderly people are depressed. Age brings so many problems, it seems hideously unfair to add depression into the mix.
My mother has a number of good reasons to be depressed. She’s lives alone in a house that’s too big for her in a neighborhood that’s grows dicier by the day. She has chronic pain which has disabled her from doing so many of the things she loved to do (like painting rooms, cleaning out the garage, going shopping, gardening.) Her close friends and family members have been disappearing from her life in rapid succession, and there are only a couple left; this particular lady was the last one with whom she ever had any real physical contact. By today’s standard depression assessments, she is a prime candidate.
Despite all that, she has a fighting spirit which she swears comes from her paternal grandmother, “Sudey” Bland, whose dash of Cherokee blood is my mother’s explanation for her own stubbornness, sixth sense, and unorthodox ideas about modern medicine. “If you leave well enough alone,” she maintains, “most things that go wrong with you will clear up on their own. And if they don’t and you die - well, we all have to go sometime.” She’s lived 88 mostly healthy years on that philosophy, so it’s hard to argue with her.
Pragmatic as she is, I know she worries a great deal about what lies ahead for her.
Of course, I worry about it too. I wonder daily (hourly!) if I’m doing right by her. As fiercely independent as she is, as private and home loving a person, it’s important to me that I help her stay that way as long as humanly possibly, even though her living situation is dangerous in a lot of ways. She is sound of mind, if not body; I do not feel justified influencing her decisions about how to live the last years of her life. There are others I know who would see it differently, would see it as my duty to take charge and put her into a safer situation such as a group or assisted living facility.
But in my heart, I would as soon give her a cyanide pill. To leave her home, to live amongst strangers, to follow arbitrary timetables and schedules would be, for her, a fate worse than death. And though it may come to that of dire necessity, she is holding out as long as she can.
“You never quite become your mother’s mother, not as long as your mother is at all cognizant,” says author and journalist Jane Gross, one of the gurus I’ve been following. “Part of the trick of it all is learning to take over just enough without humiliating them.” That is a fine line all of us who are caregivers must walk.
Thankfully my mother has not succumbed to age-related depression, even though she admits to having days when she’d prefer to stay in bed all day with the covers pulled over her head. “But I know I have to keep going,” she says. “I’ve seen what happens when you just give up, and it’s not pretty."
So she gets up, makes some chicken soup or spaghetti sauce to send to her friend's husband, worried that he’s not eating properly while his wife is in the hospital. “I guess I’m pretty proud of myself,” she says to me sometimes. “I do okay most days, considering everything."
Every Wednesday, I’m thankful for another one of those days when she’s doing okay. I just hope there are a lot more of them.