We're here in White Plains, New York, visiting my husband's mother who will be 98 in a few weeks. He makes these trips on a regular basis, to check up on her and on her home. She made the decision years ago, when his dad passed away, to remain living in this home, for the sake of her family....and she's done nothing but complain about her family ever since. She told me this morning, for the enth time, that she feels as if she is a "guest" in her home. She often refers to her house as a "half-way" house. Eight years ago, when we felt that she should not be living alone, we sold our own home and moved in with her. The move almost proved fatal for me. My own parents were becoming more needy as my mother's body became more and more ravaged by her illness and they were on the Cape, alone. So, the decision was made to return to the Cape after an absence of over twenty years.
Our move to the Cape was not without angst. It seems that my husband's family had gotten very comfortable with the notion that we would be here for Mom and therefore, they would never, ever, ever have to do anything whatsoever for her. They could go about their business, free of worry and we would be the caretakers, the home maintenance crew, and the whipping posts. It simply did not work. I knew, on the day we moved in to the home, that my life was going to change and the independence that I had valued so much, it was at stake. So, off we went. Away from the bright lights of Manhattan, back to the seashore, a move I really don't regret. We know that, to this day, we are still the "bad guys" but was at the right place at the right time makes me no longer care about that.
I've managed to pick up the pieces of the independent life that I had enjoyed. I have struck a balance. My decision to be closer in proximity to my own parents was a wise one and I am happy that my mother had me "back" for the final years of her life. I felt that I gave her a gift beyond compare in that. We've traveled, met new friends, reconnected with old ones, and made a very nice new life, all the while keeping parts of our past lives intact. I still get in to Manhattan as often as I can, trying to hop on the train at least once every time we visit. We don't feel particularly deprived and we still make plans for the future. Our return trip to Umbria is already in the works for May. But......
There is something huge that I discovered a while ago, as we went through all of the paces and as I worked so hard at getting it all right for myself, my husband and our family. There simply aren't any guidelines for our time of life. In all other stages and life cycles, one can find guidance. Books, movies, classes and, in the age of technology, countless other ways of communicating "instructions". How to get pregnant, how to stay pregnant, how to give birth, potty train a baby, raise a toddler, live with a teenager, deal with an empty nest, save for your retirement, cope with an illness. On and on and on. We're never alone to figure anything out. In addition, or perhaps first and foremost, we oftentimes have first hand subject matter experts on whom we can rely. Mothers teaching daughters, fathers, sons. "This is how I did it when I was your age". Like the messenger or not, at least there were real live people in real time who could offer some wisdom and some solace when we thought that times were rough and we would never get through the crisis of the day. Remember Walton's Mountain? It worked for them and there wasn't a Smartphone for centuries. The thing that is missing here and now? Wisdom of the ages. To put it bluntly, our parents never had to deal with their old parents because their parents never lived as long as ours are.
In a somewhat typical life cycle, one that includes children, the parents raise the kids, the kids leave the home, the parents say bye bye and, in looking into the mirror, they see people who are still young enough to enjoy a good life span. Their job is done. Unscathed, they carry on their duties as happy and refreshed grandparents, cheerleaders to their own children who still are in the trenches, and role models for them as they mature. Times, they have a'changed. The new paradigm finds parents just getting out of their role as front line caregivers to their own children when they are thrust, totally unprepared, into the role of caregiver to an elderly parent or set of parents. As the elders age, so do the caregivers. The window of "freedom"from care giving never really gets fully opened. We get cross, we don't always do or say the right thing. We get into trouble with our siblings. We run out of time to visit with our grandchildren, our grown children. We get calls on our cell phones when we are having dinner with our friends. We make decisions, hard ones that set the course of the rest of our parents' lives. And all the while, we are shooting in the dark, getting older and hoping that our kids will have some guidance, that we won't deprive them of their years of freedom.
Wouldn't it be nice if each time you renew your driver's license, you are tested on the materials from the guide book to dealing with aging parents as you also age. You would be required to answer questions such as "name ten ways to keep your ninety-something parent from becoming depressed".....answer on page 13. Good luck.