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Parenting the parents: No place for sissies

One boomer's experiences with Ancient Parent Decrepitude


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Lately I've been extraordinarily busy — to the point of exhaustion at times — doing something I never thought I'd write about: taking care of my aging parents. Then again, I've heard from enough fellow baby boomers who've been immersed in that unsettling netherworld to feel that someone might get something from reading my version of this increasingly common generational tale. First, what you've heard is true, it is nearly all-consuming. Second, some other important things in your life do have to be put on hold.

In the past five months or so, my pondering about column topics has paled next to the energy I've spent trying to deal as best I can with what I call APD, or Ancient Parent Decrepitude. If that term sounds callous, sorry, but I need the dark humor; it helps soften the blows of the terrible truths to be faced and the dreadful choices you may need to make.

My mother and stepfather, henceforth called Mom and Pop, both in their 80s, lived near Kannapolis. I'm an only child. In August, unbeknown to any of us, Pop had a series of small strokes, ending with a bad fall at home in which he hit his head on the bathtub, causing bleeding around his brain. When I saw him the next day, he was lying unconscious with two tubes draining blood out of the top of his head — not a sight to be soon forgotten. A month later, he wound up in a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation and soon caught C.diff, a potentially fatal intestinal infection most commonly contracted in, you guessed it, nursing facilities. At that point, his physical therapists quit working with him, and when he was finally released from the facility, he was in such poor shape, he was re-admitted to the hospital the very next day.

All this time, I drove to and from the hospital and nursing facility in Concord nearly every day on the most dilapidated stretch of I-85. After a month of it, I was exhausted and got a clot in my leg. The crisis, however, was far from over because, meanwhile, Mom was generally alone in their home, where her moods and mental condition darkened considerably.

Pop stayed at the hospital for weeks but suddenly refused further care and announced that he just wanted to die. He was sent home to be taken care of by hospice but then changed his mind. (More dark humor: Mom's explanation of the change was, "I guess he got hungry again.") Long story short: back to the hospital, then back to the nursing facility, where they were none too pleased to find out I was angry about his previous treatment there.

In the meantime, I decided Mom's muddled mental state made it imperative to get her out of her housebound solitude, and so began a process of checking out various assisted living centers. By late November my family and I moved her into a nice, well-run assisted living center in Charlotte that is as terrific as it is expensive. After some initial confusion and reluctance, she's doing much better, at least most of the time. Mom's move to Charlotte, though, involved having to make a horrific decision. Pop's doctor had told me in September that my stepfather probably had less than six months to live; so, assuming Pop would not be around long, I decided to place Mom in a pricey place, thinking that Pop would not be joining her later nor spending any extra money. A couple of times, I found myself waking up from dreams of Pop's funeral and undertakers demanding money.

It turns out the doctor was wrong in his prognosis; things went much better the second time around at the nursing facility, and Pop is now walking unaided again and is set to leave any day. That's the good news, for which we're all grateful. The bad news is that his and Mom's future together is now uncertain due to finances. Alternative housing plans are literally being hashed out as I'm writing this.

As I've learned from friends who have dealt with their own cases of APD, uncertainty and angst are the norm for these situations. In addition, seeing your folks headed downhill in a fast cart is — and there's no gentler way to put this and remain honest — simply awful. If you're not careful, it can turn your own life into something awful, too. Having to then also make health decisions for them based on monetary concerns only magnifies the sorrow.

So that's the short version of what I've been up to. Thanks for asking. Naturally, any and all comments, tales, suggestions or money orders are welcome.


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