Care

From time to time I’ve mentioned the addition my wife and I put on our house several years ago. I don’t know that I’ve ever explained what originally impelled it. We were faced with the prospect of needing to take care of both of our elderly mothers.

We added a full first floor wheelchair accessible bath and created what is in effect a complete efficiency apartment on our first floor. Our new kitchen adjoins a “hearth room” as my architect brother-in-law calls it in open plan and that room would make a perfectly suitable bedroom.

As it turned out the need never arose. My mother-in-law needed more care than we could provide and my mother was nearly completely independent until the day she died. If our addition turns out to have been practical, it will be for our needs as we become less willing to climb stairs rather than for our mothers.

I think that one of the things missing from th lifestyle adopted by so many of my peers, transitioning from oversized house to empty nest to condo (or, in some cases, even more oversized house) is that aspect of care. We don’t care for our elderly relations any more. That has been professionalized and I believe we are poorer for it.

Virtue is a habit. We become courageous by acting courageously and caring by performing acts of care. That is the good sense in Cheryl Magness’s reaction to Emanuel Ezekiel’s expressed preference for dying at 75:

My 84-year-old mother lives with me. She has done so for more than five years now, and it has not been easy. She is not bedridden, nor does she suffer from a debilitating illness. But she is old, and old age, as the saying goes, is not for the faint of heart. My mother has pain and she forgets things. She can be quite negative. She is not very active, nor is she a fountain bubbling over with wisdom day in and day out. She is tired, and spends her days watching television, doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku, and taking naps in her chair. But her mere presence in our house is a blessing because of what it requires of those around her.

If we want a more caring society, we will not accomplish it by paying our taxes dutifully or voting the right people into office but by caring for others ourselves. She’s right. It’s a blessing.

18 comments… add one
  • CStanley

    Amen.

    It isn’t easy though, and individual situations require different solutions. I grew up with my grandmother in the home and she was one who should have had professional care. My own mother is at a crossroads right now, and I know that the specter of that experience affects her so that she does not want to burden any of us. And frankly my personal experience is that our kids are requiring far more from us (financially, emotionally, and otherwise) than we anticipated so it would be nearly impossible to stretch more.

    But life is hard, and messy, and when we try to make it otherwise we end up the poorer for it.

  • Modulo Myself

    There’s no easy answer. It really depends on the family dynamic.

    My mother, on her wedding day, received a gracious note from her new mother-in-law, apologizing in advance if she appeared distant. She told my mom that in her experience, living with her husband’s domineering elderly parents had been so traumatic that she was going to go out of her way not to do the same thing to my mom. She chose to be in a nursing home rather than ‘inflict’ her presence on my dad and his brothers.

    And on the other side of my family, my mom’s father, after his wife died, who could be very domineering, spent many years moving between his house, our house, and his Jupiter condo. He was very difficult and definitely a strain on my parent’s marriage. I have very distinct memories of the tension at dinnertime when he was there.

    Granted, fifty percent of both sides of my family has ended up alienated from everyone else in their families. My parents were the only high-functioning people in their families, and so bore the brunt of it. On the other hand, my mother moved to be very close to my younger brother’s family. This was per his request, and in order to help take care of his family. My brother and I have a much more equal relationship with my mom.

  • Who can afford professional care? Sitters down here average about $10/hr. Seriously impaired folks need someone 24/7.

    When my brother was so very ill back in 2008 the only practical thing to do was take him into our home.

  • PD Shaw

    This seems somewhat backwards from my personal experience, the elderly don’t want to move in with their children, particularly if it uproots them from their own communities. On my mom’s side of the family it’s the loss of the garden. I just spent the day going to and from my uncle’s funeral. Their kids finally convinced them to move into a condo in the city when my uncle suffered a fatal heart attack. My aunt expressed her long-term plan is to slowly move all of her favorite plants to her new home. (I hope the condo resolutions are kind) On my dad’s side, his mom refused to budge from that social circle that is the coffee house in small-town, main street, within walking distance of home, and faces she’d known since childhood.

  • steve

    Magness’ arguments have some problems. She seems to think that if you are in your 50s or 60s, and now need to take care of 85 y/o granny, it will teach you to care. To value sacrifice. I would submit that if you have not learned to care about or for others by the time you are that old, caring for granny will not change anything. I find myself more broadly agreeing with Emanuel, as modified by PD above. I won’t want to die just because I won’t be able to run a corporation anymore, but if I reached the point where I couldn’t putter in my garden, have dinner with friends or family, read (and remember it), I wouldn’t see the point in being alive anymore. To expect my kids to care for me at that point when life would be pretty pointless would just be imposing a burden upon them.

    Steve

  • ...

    She seems to think that if you are in your 50s or 60s, and now need to take care of 85 y/o granny, it will teach you to care. To value sacrifice. I would submit that if you have not learned to care about or for others by the time you are that old, caring for granny will not change anything.

    I don’t think it would work that way. Rather, the youngest generation seeing older generations of the family take care of the oldest generation would inculcate those virtues from a young age, particularly if the youngsters were to help in some way.

    The problem is transitioning BACK to that model after several decades of things being the way they are.

    This seems somewhat backwards from my personal experience, the elderly don’t want to move in with their children, particularly if it uproots them from their own communities.

    This is another part of the problem: there are no communities anymore, or damned few of them. So yes, old people aren’t going to want to uproot to move to some other place that they don’t know. Multigenerational families would be more palatable in various parts of the family weren’t getting uprooted regularly.

  • Somewhat off-topic, but I’m curious.

    Taking the poetic stance that your life corresponds to the seasons, how would you place yourself in that order?

    I’d answer late summer, with cooler nights. I’m 57.

  • My mother died at 83 in 2004. I’d have placed her at late fall.

  • My husband and I asked her if she’d like to come live in the small apartment on our property. It would have been comfortable, with a better community.

    She preferred her independence.

  • PD Shaw

    Sorry Janis, I’m not that introspective about my impending death, particularly after a funeral. By actuarial tables, I’ve more years behind me than in front of me though, so I’d say Fall (46 y.o.).

  • It could be that those older ages start looking less advanced as my age advances. My brother was a mere boy of 69 when he died this summer.

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