Aging and Elder Care
Caring for aging parents: Dogs, walkers and the great fall
Posted July 1, 2008
When I was invited to write this blog, my main instruction was to keep it personal. How could it not be, writing about the psychological mother lodes of aging and caring for elderly parents (and, for me, the mother-daughter bond--whew!)?
Last year, I wouldn't have considered writing on these subjects. My mother, Rachel, who is 83 and will often be the star of this blog, wasn't really there yet. By that I mean that though she was old, she didn't have the typical problems that attend old age. She was still relatively independent, living alone as she had been for 33 years, still driving (much to her family's dismay), and "with it"-daily trips to the Acme, meeting friends for lunch and dinner, keeping up with a stream of doctor's appointments that often seemed more social than scientific, and making a two hour train trip alone to visit me in Washington, D.C. She had some medical issues, but they were not debilitating.
But there were signs that things were changing: Hearing problems; failing vision that resulted in having her license forcefully taken away (more on that one in another blog); chronic pain brought on by an arthritic condition that affected her walking and stability (it took us months to get her to agree to use a walker); and the orneriness and depression that resulted from recognizing her physical and cognitive lapses but refusing to accept them-pretty typical of old people. But this was doubly a problem with my mother, who was always fiercely independent-minded and ornery when things didn't go her way (and prone to depression). I worried, but didn't anticipate how quickly things would change.
The event that brought my mother (literally) to her knees was one so typical of old age that it is a cliché: She fell. Falls are the leading cause of injury for those 65 and older; more than a third of them will do it each year and nearly 2 million will end up in the ER as a result, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But while my mother's fall may have been typical, the way she did it was--typically--not. She took my brother's 60-pound, frisky lab puppy for a walk-using her walker (her idea--she wanted the dog to visit with her while my brother ran errands; apparently the sunny spring day and her sense of omnipotence got the better of her). What she didn't anticipate were the habits of a big puppy: Shadow saw the neighbor's yappy Bichons and took off. My mother, the leash wrapped around her wrist, got dragged across her front lawn. She fractured her shoulder and her hip, but it took a full week before doctors, who initially misdiagnosed a pelvic fracture, correctly diagnosed the hip break. Meanwhile, she walked and sat on it for 6 days--the last in excruciating pain--before another x-ray showed the displaced femur. Hip replacement surgery happened the next morning, the day before Easter. You could say that she rose, in a sense, to a new life--one that she didn't necessarily want, but that, three months later, we are making work (I think).
As the healing began--emotionally and physically--so did the process of obvious aging. For the first time I felt smacked in the face not so much by my mother's mortality (my father died when I was 15 so I was always aware that she could go at any moment, too), but with her physical frailty. I had to admit that she was, indeed, old and that her body, like mine, would wear out and not last forever.
That was a tough realization: My mother had always been physically strong. When I was a kid, she used to rearrange the living room furniture every few months by herself-big couches, tables, heavy chairs, even the baby grand piano was pushed from one end of the long room to another. After her surgery and during her month in rehab she was in a wheel chair and looking old.
She's made great progress in three months--alternately filling her with optimism (and at times the same sense of omnipotence that got her in trouble with the dog) and the dread of not being able to do the things she used to.
What will it mean for her, and for me and my family as we take care of her in her old age? I'm not sure. I do know I'm not the only one struggling with the logistics and emotions of caring for an elderly parent. I welcome your stories, ideas and feedback.