It happens gradually. You’re going along in your own life having left home, starting a family, and being concerned with your kids. Then, one day, the phone rings and it’s your mother. After a short conversation discussing something that you would have thought was trivial, it hits you, your parents are calling on you for advice.
Those brief, perhaps short questions, turn into long discussions. And, it is then that you start to wonder, am I being asked to take care of a parent too?
Having to explain how to use a tablet was an expected challenge. After all, it’s new technology – quite different from what Dad’s old office working environment was or Mom fiddling with the television antenna. So, we make allowances for that. But these are peppered with other moments that, at first, we write off as just being quirks of personality; and then realizing, maybe we need to worry about a parent.
Over the ages, society has evolved to address the needs of the elderly. Many of us will recall the tales of the Eskimos, told to us perhaps in school or camp, that when they became too much of a burden on their family, they would say their goodbyes and leave the warmth of, I guess the igloo, and vanish into the cold, never to be seen again.
Eastern cultures too, evolved complex systems of familial piety aimed at caring for the extended elderly members of the family. Some would engage them in less arduous tasks: teaching, daycare for infants, making clothes.
However, in the West, our culture has focused on the nuclear family. That family seems to last until, perhaps 20 years after the children leave home. Then, some other solution needs to be found.
In parallel, our society evolved communal solutions for many of its challenges. From debtors’ prisons, and workhouses, to communes, hospices, and old-aged homes. Over the years, perhaps to assuage our guilt, we have developed warmer euphemisms like retirement communities and assisted-living facilities. These conjure up images of happy, fun-loving people on vacation and modern, cleanly, and automated industrial solutions.
But this is not something that we are taught to deal with. Having to take one’s parent to the dentist to discuss harrowing surgery was not discussed growing up, nor on the syllabus in college. But then, dealing with a parent who is no longer ambulatory converts that short, simple conversation into trying to find a mobile dentist (and they do exist, check out Spa Creek Dental for example).
Over the years, my wife and I found ourselves managing not only our own home but that of both our respective parents and 2 of their childless siblings to boot.
With my parents, the final straw came the day we were told that their house had to be tented. While we found a company (Econo Pest Control) that could manage the process for us, and let us do it remotely it was obvious, this was not going to work anymore.
Caring for one’s own children is tough, but having 4 additional households to manage, a job, and a mortgage is not possible.
Not being a 19th-century Innuit cut off that first, inexpensive avenue. And being only children ourselves meant there was no extended family. The solution for us was a mixture of cashing out their property to provide sufficient funds to cover an assisted living, having another come live with us, and praying that the 3rd one (my uncle) doesn’t set fire to his apartment. My wife’s maiden aunt thankfully is still sharp as a tack but seems prone to sweet-talking salespeople who take an interest in her.
Choosing an assisted living solution was a challenge. While the proceeds of the house sale more than amply cover the monthly fees, deciding on where to move them turned into more of a challenge. They, at first, wanted to be closer to the area where I grew up. But they soon felt they could no longer partake in the activities that used to be so much a part of their lives. Visiting was difficult as we now had to stay at a motel, making it more costly than before. And there were times I felt, hearing my Mom on the phone, she sounded stressed. When I called back, though the matron sounded caring, I could not stop chiding myself for not physically checking in on her. I found myself asking an ex- to pop by as she still lived in the area.
Just before the onset of Covid, we convinced them to move closer to us. This solved several of the logistical challenges, and in fact, turned into both a memorable adventure (moving them) as well as giving us the means to spend more time with them.
My daughter is now convinced her grandmother’s cognition improved as we were able to visit her more frequently. My Dad still grumbles, and still gets confused by Netflix and why the tablet doesn’t need to get plugged into the antenna; but at least now, our daughter is the one telling him how to swipe left, right and get around the child locks.