Elder Care vs. Child Care: Which Would You Rather Talk About?
The whole month of October has gone by, and none of the things I promised myself I would finally get around to writing about this month have appeared on my blog. They haven’t even made it out of my cranium into rough draft form on my computer. I didn’t even manage to get a post up exhorting you all to open your wallets for the good cause of DonorsChoose 2009 Social Media Challenge (though there’s still one day left should you be so inspired!) I managed somehow to get my giving page set up (and a few of you stumbled across it and donated, with absolutely no help from me – bless your hearts!)
If I could use one word to describe my blogging over the last year or so, it would be “inconsistent”. Inconsistent in frequency, topic, quality, and sense of direction or purpose. I start out with a good idea, like blogging my way through The Gender Knot (which, by the way, I still intend to pick back up and work on again) and then am not able to continue.
Part of this bloggus interruptus is due, of course, to the migraines, but increasingly it is due to the sapping of my resources – time, emotional and mental energy – that comes from attending so closely on a daily basis to my mother’s financial and health care issues. I’ve thought for a long time of trying to describe what this is like, but of course doing so takes time and concentration and focus that I don’t normally have, because my time and emotional/mental/physical energy is drained through daily struggles with seemingly endless, always tedious, mind-numbingly little, stupid details. Any one of the things I have to do is small and takes not much time. But they all add up over time, and each little struggle carries with it its own special humiliations and defeats. Here I’m going to try and describe a little of what goes on in the mind of someone charged with managing the care of an elderly person.
There are the constant worries about mom’s health and condition at the assisted living home. Is her pain managed adequately? What if she falls again? Is she getting enough to eat? Is she happy? What do I need to do to make sure she gets a flu shot? Can I reschedule the appointment with Dr. A for around the same time as the one with Dr. B so that I can take her to both of them in one trip home? Just how many phone calls will it take to get this appointment for a pain shot with clinic C scheduled? (Answer: approximately 50 or more, plus emails, over a period of a month and a half.)
I have a relative who often remarks on the similarities between elder and child care. This relative thinks that we regress to a child-like state as we age, and that there are some positive things about that – we find joy and wonder in things again as we did when we were children. She thinks there are other similarities – the need for regularity and naps, and being easily distractible, among them. Earlier this year I had lunch with a good friend who has children, and we, too, talked about the similarities and differences between providing elder care and child care. The similarities seem to be that in both cases, the person you are providing care for is always on your mind – you are always worrying about them, thinking of their welfare, even when you are not around them, even when you are off doing something else. But one of the main differences, it seems to me, is this. In caring for children, there is a lot of positive reinforcement and reward along with the worries that burdensome task brings, and those positive aspects are rather public.
You take your children out in public, people ooh and ah over the little ones. You take your elderly parent out and most people don’t even realize that it is in many ways just as complicated and exhaustive an outing, requiring just as much planning, as taking a small child or infant. There is at least a rhetoric in society about how valuable parenting is, even if social policies don’t always match up to the ideals of that rhetoric, so a person responsible for childcare can draw on that rhetoric to remind him or herself of the value of the important work they are doing. And the work is directed at such a positive goal in and of itself – bringing up the next generation! Raising the future of our society! Shaping the minds of tomorrow’s leaders! And so on and so on.
Elder care is done, for the most part, off to the side and in the shadows. There is no pervasive rhetoric, in American society, of the value of time spent with the elderly. To the contrary, age is a disease, and to be shunned. People with children may gather in groups and forums to trade happy stories of the clever escapades of their children, but who ever heard of sharing heartwarming stories of mom or dad’s latest memory mixup? Remember that amazing time when your young one grabbed the spoon and fed herself for the first time? You couldn’t wait to tell everyone, right? Well, who do you go talk to about the first time you had to cut up the meat on your parent’s plate in the restaurant because he or she was too weak to do it for themselves? “This knife is so dull,” they might have said, “I just can’t cut with it.” “Here, let me try,” you might have gently replied, and then after that, you might have started offering to cut the meat for them, hesitantly at first, and then it just became routine. “I’m so proud!” you want to tell your friends, “I can cut mom’s meat in the restaurant like it’s the most normal thing in the world; tears don’t even well up in my eyes now!”
Maybe you’re watching t.v., and one night, you’re just sick to death of all the commercials extolling the virtues of this or that diaper for the cute as a button babies crawling around. You know those babies are going to poop and pee in those diapers and there we are talking about it right on national tv! Because it’s cute! And when was the last time you saw a commercial for incontinence briefs? Not so cute. Maybe you get together with your momma-friends and trade info about the best brand of disposable diapers for Junior’s comfort, but who do you talk to about how the disposable briefs irritate the equally, if not more so, tender flesh of an older person? We celebrate the time when our children move from the potty-training stage to really and truly using the toilet consistently but nobody talks about how to help someone manage the griefs associated with giving up using your own underwear, or becoming dependent on a bedside toilet chair, or not even being able to reach your bedside toilet chair in time.
The difficulties of raising children are balanced by the joys and the knowledge that they will grow up and move out and go on to lives of their own, and you get to watch all of that. (If you are lucky. I know not all children get to grow up. And I know it’s not all easy and straightforward.) These future fantasies are something we like to speculate about and look forward to. But the difficulties of elder care come with the grim knowledge that they will eventually end when death takes the beloved elder from you. When the mind moves toward that, usually a door just slams shut, except on the really dark days, when one thinks, okay, I’m tired of all this, so tired of dealing with everything, where is the dignity,…and of all the things we don’t talk about relating to elder care, these sorts of thoughts are buried way down in the deepest and darkest, under a deep blotch of shame.
With all that I feel and have described here, I keep in mind that I am not providing daily care for my mother’s physical needs. I have a relative who is struggling to do this for two elderly parents, one who is beginning to show signs of dementia, the other who has many illnesses and is very frail – and she works full time while trying to provide this care. I don’t know how she copes, and don’t know how much longer she can keep doing it. There are so many more like her out there in our society.
Moms have the mommy blogs; one nice place to start is The New Old Age Blog, which my friend PalMD told me about some time back. Let me know if you have other resources you think are good. I could use them, and I’m sure others could, too.