Monday, October 16, 2006

Lessons from Little Old Men

I went to see my Dad yesterday and to take him some cold weather clothes. He was sound asleep, and if I hadn’t seen his chest move, I’d have worried. I sorted through his clothes and realized that he has way too many, and I’m going to have to tell my sister not to buy him any more shirts – for any season. With him being in a nursing home, he just doesn’t put that much wear and tear on anything unless it’s a struggle to get in and out of it, and, even so, he’s not strong enough to put much pressure on any seams or fabric.

I’ve noticed that when people are old and feeble, the types of clothing they can wear changes. It’s harder for them to raise their arms and wiggle into pullovers or pull-on shirts unless they fit very loosely. Snaps are good for shirts and dress fronts, and buttons if they’re not too shaky or nearsighted, work, too, although the clothing does have to be larger than one would expect because bending their arms back to slip into the clothing is harder for old folks, too.

My Dad has not walked in four years. Before that, he could walk short distances with a walker, and that necessitates different clothing for his lower body, too. He can, and does, paddle along in his wheelchair, but he really can’t deal with clothes that zip or button or have hooks in the waistband – it’s elasticized pull-on pants that he gets the most use out of. He can’t dress himself either, so everything needs to be easy for the aides to put on him.

He has intension tremor, which makes his hands very shaky, and which has fooled more than one health professional into thinking he has Parkinson’s. He doesn’t. It’s hereditary, it’s been pretty much the same since he was 58 years old, and is one of the reasons he took early retirement. He has to suck soup through a straw (or wear it), and on really bad days, he needs help eating or the food will fly left and right and then he gets to cussing at himself because he’s so annoyed. He still has his pride, so he is terribly embarrassed by his shakiness, and that makes him mad, hence the cussing. Fortunately, he’s such a sweetie, all the aides fight over who gets to help him eat. Or, maybe they just want to sit down for a while!

His vision is going and he doesn’t read the way he used to. His hands are so weak that he has trouble holding books for very long, so I think I’ll get him a bookstand for his table for Christmas. I don’t know if he’ll read more, but it might help. And, I think his hearing is getting bad – we got a call from the nursing home last week that he’s been falling asleep, holding the remote for his TV, and leaving the TV on. That irks his roomie, so they wondered if we’d pick up a cordless headset for him, which we did. Hubs installed the necessary thingies on the TV yesterday and made sure the whole set up worked.

He forgets things, he forgets names, but he always remembers me, the kids, and our names and our relationship to him. He knows we love him, and he knows he loves us. He’s been old for a long time, now.

My stepmom wasn’t old for long. Chronologically, sure she was old, but mentally and physically, she was fit, peppy, and able right up until a few months before her death. So was my father-in-law. I’m sure they both wanted to go quickly, as they did, before they spent too much time being and feeling old and feeble and needy. It is very different from merely aging.

I have long since grieved the father of my childhood. He retired 23 years ago and he and Ellen moved to Portugal, so they were out of my daily life for many years. He and Ellen moved back to the States about 10 years ago or so, but we still saw them only rarely. When Ellen was taking care of him, he didn’t seem so old, and he wasn’t.

It’s the same way with my mother-in-law. When her husband was alive, she just seemed kind of dependent on him, somewhat needy and a little, oh, I don’t know, irksomely herself, if you know what I mean. Now that he’s gone, she’s old, and my husband is having to adjust to that, and what that means for him as the geographically nearest son.

There are things that old people can’t do any more – they are not able to reason their way through knotty problems and often become frustrated and peevish, when before they would have brainstormed and problem-solved. They don’t learn new things, no matter how many crossword puzzle books you give them, how often you show them how the remote control works, or how simple you make using the computer, they don’t, won’t, and don’t want to do it. They have stopped learning the harder things. Math and memory become problems for them – not just needing to look things up, but also the concept of what it is they’re looking for begins to escape them. Their lives become smaller, simpler, and they seek to keep them manageable. And that makes perfect sense.

They feel embarrassed, recalcitrant, reluctant to ask for help, angry that they need to ask for help, and hang on, quite ferociously, to the few things they can still do for themselves. Sometimes they get paranoid about any number of things, odd things sometimes, like whether or not they’re unpacking the same groceries they thought they bought, and at some point, they will admit to one trusted person that they are not as they were, that they have moved on to being old and needy.

I know about Alzheimer’s; I’ve been to the websites, I’ve read up on the medications, I’ve watched people decline quickly, and slowly, from it. I also know the difference between the normal abilities of someone who’s 62 and someone who’s 82. There is, without question, a significant difference in what’s normal. And one way or another, there is one consistent theme in aging – the precarious nature of dignity.

I’ve learned a lot from my doddering old father, and it’s helped me to help my husband deal with his mother. His siblings are in denial about their mother’s becoming old, as much as they were with their father’s illness and death, and that’s another hurdle for my husband to cope with. Watching my Dad learn to be old has helped me become a better parent, too, and to take better care of myself.

No matter what our lives are like, no matter what shortcoming and failings we may believe we have, and no matter what miserable things we may have done or seen or been, we are all deserving of dignity. If it means a little assistive technology, then that’s what’s needed, no question about it. If it means doctor appointments, do it. If it means taking a break, giving yourself or a loved one a break, or walking away from someone else’s stress in order to maintain your dignity, then that’s what needs doing. If it means backing away from a child’s science project or homework so that their accomplishments, and the pride that goes along with them, belong to them alone, then that’s what needs doing.

And, if I need help from someone in order to live with dignity, then I need to remember that asking for it is the right thing to do, not obscuring and covering up and doing without to avoid asking for help. Asking for help is not demeaning, it is liberating. Thanks to Dad, I do understand that maintaining my dignity and acting with grace, on an ever-shifting beach of life’s challenges, is far more important than going it alone.

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