Flight #12 had not even left the gate in San Francisco yesterday before the conversation was underway. The man in seat #16F was talking to his new friend in #16E about his trip: another of many undertaken by himself and his siblings to their mother’s home in the long process of packing up, sorting through, tossing out, agonizing over. The scene is a familiar one to millions of Americans: aging, often isolated mom; far-flung, often cash-strapped, over-stressed children; a bewildering assortment of issues to be dealt with, ranging from health to housing to family dynamics.
I, of course, am the mom. Well, not #16F’s mom, and currently in good health and of relatively sane mind. But 76, with children across the continent and a dizzying amount of Stuff to be dealt with if my husband should have the crass inconsideration to die first and leave me to deal with it. (Actually, he’s been very good about making arrangements for disposition of his Stuff, but still, there are those piles and boxes and shelves of miscellany and cupboards of chipped dishes. And closets full of clothes from the 1950s and still perfectly wearable… but I digress.)
My sisters and I were fortunate that our dad looked after our mom as she slowly died, swearing they had a fine conversation the night before although dementia had long stolen her ability to converse; my father created his own realities. Twenty years later, the town of Ashland, VA, with the assistance of Randolph-Macon College, looked after our dad, because indeed it takes a village. But fewer and fewer of us have the traditional village, and more and more of us have the complications: dementia, physical issues, personal problems, too little financial and emotional resources, too much Stuff.
There is help. There are community centers and assisted living arrangements, there is the new Villages concept (more about that one in the next week or so) and an array of other anti-isolationist possibilities; there are nonprofits of every sort, from the Family Caregiver Alliance to multiple physical/emotional-needs groups to my alltime favorite, in name at least, the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization. God willing, we may even get health care, but thanks to those earlier, similar battles we at least now have Medicare and Medicaid.
But too many of us still put it all off, and it falls to the children. We cling to the past in the form of too many boxes of old photos and letters and opera programs; we drive too long and invite fender-benders or worse; we think that old chair is worth too much for a garage sale; we forget to take the pills.
The issue, of course, is not about dying; it’s about living. Living as well as possible for as long as possible, as closely as possible to what we would choose for ourselves. But here’s what happens eventually: mom dies. It’s tough, but it’s probably okay.
I gave my card with the True/Slant website on it to the nice people in #16E and #16F; maybe they’ll check in. When I get back home, though, I think I’ll clean out some files.