By Eric Sharpe
My Dad is 83 years old. My Mom is 84. For their age, they are in great health, happy (except for the occasional grumblings from my Dad typical of an old man’s grumblings), and have prepared well for a retirement life that could extend until they reach 100. They are independent, living together in their home on the West End, and maintain a lifestyle that only requires a little assistance from my brother and me… (mostly my brother – he lives closer.)
They grew up during the Great Depression where taking care of yourself was a way of life and they’ve never had to rely on anyone except each other through the best and worst of times. But with that upbringing, they also live much like every other married couple did and does from that generation in that Dad was the central earner while Mom handled the household work. Mom wasn’t a stay at home mom for long though, as after the last of their three boys (me) went off to Kindergarten, she went to work as a seamstress And without bias, she was the best seamstress in the Joliet, Illinois area for nearly 50 years (before they moved to Billings a few years ago). And though Dad was the full time earner working for Caterpillar Tractor, his paper-grill burgers were the best burgers I’ve ever had. Still, by and large, Mom handles the cooking, cleaning, and accounting for the two of them still to this day.
Even today, though gender roles are less defined as some husbands do the cooking and some wives may be handier with a screw driver around the house, it is obvious that if for no other reason than the efficiency of a household, husbands and wives divide the household work (sometimes not evenly) – from cooking and cleaning, paying the bills, mowing the lawn, the list of things to do feel endless. But that division of labor can be a big problem later in life. A very big problem, waiting to happen.
“I just found out I’ve been doing everything – he doesn’t even know where a pot and a pan is!” my Mom exclaimed recently, referring to my Dad. She had found out the hard way. Four months ago my elderly mother was really in great health. Both of my parents take good care of each other and although they’ve lived over eight decades and have the aches and pains that go with it, I had no reason to believe they won’t make it well into their 90’s.
But something changed recently, and rather quickly. One day in late October, while simply sitting in her chair, her lower back began to ache. She hadn’t fallen or twisted the wrong way, it just started to ache. Over the course of a week, that pain continued to get worse.
Now, my Mom is about the toughest person I know. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a sweet minded, gentle hearted, caring and awesome mom. But she was raised on a farm where pain never stopped the daily work and in all her years working as a seamstress, I don’t think she ever missed a day on the job. But this pain had gotten so unbearable she was almost in tears. “It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt.” She told me. Coming from her, that says something.
I met my parents at the emergency room that October, and found my Mom in so much pain she could hardly move. This was the second trip to the ER in just a few days by the way… at a second hospital. Without naming names as it were, the first ER did a poor job and basically sent her home with some ibuprofen. The second one did a great job… for the most part.
The ER staff at this hospital never made us wait. They acted quickly and responsively and within a short time my Mom was finally no longer in pain. Morphine can do that. She was safe, and my Dad, my brother, and I were at least breathing a bit easier. Then came the initial news. The CT scan showed a spinal disc that had virtually crumbled. We were told that this is not uncommon at my Mom’s age and may not even be the cause of the pain, but it could be serious. At her age, a surgical solution was not an option. So, what was the option?
The initial news wasn’t good. An administrative nurse came into the room to do some paperwork – one of many to visit in a brief period of time to ensure my Mom was doing OK. But this one might have been a bit too frank in telling us, she’d seen this before, “when the disc crumbles, there’s not much they can do.” She then started telling us how we had to think about moving her into an assisted care facility where she’d have to learn how to live with this pain, likely with a lot of pain medications, for the rest of her life. I was floored. My Dad looked dazed. I slowly began to become more concerned for him than my Mom. How would he get along without her? She really did do “everything” around the house.
But I only had to consider this new life for my parents for about fifteen minutes as another nurse came in. I was asking about next steps, what assisted living facilities we might look into. She looked at me, and rather cheerily said. “Oh, no, we plan on working on this until we can get her home, without pain, or we run out of options.” The Doctor soon followed and gave the same opinion. And after a week in the hospital, Mom was back home. As for the nurse with the bad info… being a family publication, the harshest language I can use is: “I hope you get a rock in your shoe.” Actually, she was trying to be helpful, in her own way, and in a sense, she was. She gave us a little insight into a possible future By the way, the morphine not only killed the pain, it apparently put Mom in wonderland. Thankfully, she didn’t remember that conversation with the nurse.
Mom still battles the pain but it is manageable. She’s getting great care in town and has been able to get back to doing most of what she was doing before. And that is when she took me aside and said, “People just don’t expect the unexpected.” And when it hits, no one is ready. Then she leaned in a bit closer and whispered, “I think this should be an article in your magazine. There are so many little things you just don’t think about.”
Yeah. I agree. You see, my Dad is a bonified Korean War hero… and a very smart guy… but apparently he does not know how to turn on the oven. He’s not helpless, he’s just never had to do the day-to-day stuff my Mom has always done. Had my Mom not returned home, we discovered, Dad might have had to live on cold Spam for a while. Which may sound funny, and he does like Spam, but it’s not exactly a healthy meal.
“You should always have extra everything,” she pointed out while we worked on this article. Even if the captain of the household (Mom) does come back home, she or he might not be up for doing the shopping right away. “You should have extra tissues, paper towels, toilet tissue, canned food – anything you might need. And [everyone in the house] should know how to work the washer and dryer.”
And with that, I realized, at my young age, I didn’t know how to run our washer and dryer. I have no idea where our check book is… I don’t know where the stamps are! Hmm. This advice isn’t just for the old… it is for the dependent! She continued, “Keep notes of everything – dates and times of appointments – for everyone, insurance numbers, phone numbers of family and friends, bank statements – keep it all together and everyone should know where they are.”
Oh, and she insisted I impart to the reader, “always have a back scratcher on hand.” Not just for scratching your back, but in the event you have to reach for something that fell between a chair and an end table. Funny. I dismissed this suggestion… until last night when I found myself using a backscratcher to wrangle a runaway M&M between my chair and my end table. If you are in pain from an injury, digging for a runaway anything isn’t easy without the right tools of retrieval.
And a very important, and serious last word of advice from my Mom. “Everyone around you should know your end of life wishes.” Now I do. If she passes before my Dad, don’t let him near the oven.