On Parenting Aging Parents

Caregiving1         “I thought I would have a life,” Sharon said to me. “My youngest is now in college, my husband is nearing retirement and we thought we would have a life. Instead, I am juggling time with my father – who’s in an independent living facility but is certainly not independent – and my mother who lives alone in the house she’s had for 40 years. My mother is, how do I put this?, needy. Suddenly she needs help with all sorts of things and I have been designated The Helper.”

It was one of the saddest mini-conversations I’ve had in a very long time. I had known  Sharon for less than an hour. She is 54. She was visiting a friend of mine, and this report came when 6 of us were having lunch at the retirement condo where I live. Actually, other than one sixty-something I’ll call Joan, I was the only one in the group older than 54. At 86 I happily accumulate younger friends as often as possible, since the rest of us keep dying off. My lunch guests were talking about what a good spot I am in, especially since my children all live in faraway states.Caregiving4 That was when one 40-something said, “I wish my parents would consider moving to a place like this; they don’t want to leave their big, three-story house, and I’m afraid I’m going to be trying to take care of them there by the time I hit my fifties. And that’s when Sharon chimed in with the comment above: “Yeah, I thought I would have a life . . .” And Joan said, with a wry smile, “Welcome to the club.”

I have another friend I’ll call Robert, a business associate with whom I’m not all that close. But because he knew I was writing this piece he told me a similar story. His parents are somewhat younger than this octogenarian writer, but not that much. They had what my friend describes as “a rather loveless marriage” for more than 20 years, but when it ended – with his father leaving to be with an old sweetheart whom “he probably should’ve married in the first place” – that was the last time they spoke. His mother later found a new partner, and both parents, though neither remarried, were contentedly partnered for many years. Not long ago, though, his mother’s partner died, and at about the same time his father’s partner sold their house (which she owned) and moved to another state to be near her daughter. Robert’s father “now rents a room in a home not his own — surviving on Social Security and a small amount of work— surprised he’s still here because he thought he would be dead 10 or more years ago and did not plan to see his 80s.” So much for life plans.Caregiving5 “Both are alone and needy now, in different, complementary ways,” Robert says. “If they could somehow bring themselves to talk to one another, perhaps they could begin to chisel away at the layers of resentment, hostility and blame that destroyed their relationship.” Apparently this won’t begin to happen any time soon, however, as Robert tells me they maintain no interest in communicating. His mother lives alone in a home she owns and craves companionship; his father has little money left and needs a roof over his head, a more secure one than the stranger’s home in which he’s been unhappily existing for more than two years now. Robert laments they are in a unique position to help each other, if they were open to it. As their only child, Robert sees this as the sensible alternative to driving him crazy. But he also admits they might not reflect upon or even begin to realize just how their current lives affect him.

Two messages stand out: Needy parents, and children going crazy as designated helpers.

These two examples may not be universal, but they are surely not uncommon. The upside is that many such parents have children at least able to help. (Many parents also have children who are delighted to be caregivers, resulting in a blessing for all. I’m just not sure this is often the case.) But consider the aging elderly who have no (available) children and even fewer resources; be grateful if you’re aged and have one or the other. The downside, at least across the U.S., is a growing inter-generational tragedy. My unscientific micro-sampling, conducted over a period of several weeks, turned up a half-dozen youngish Boomers caring (with varying degrees of joy & satisfaction) for septuagenarian or octogenarian parents, and a handful of Gen-X’ers caring for Boomer parents.Caregiving3 Two of the latter have serious financial concerns put this way by one: “So I’m spending my retirement savings on my mom, and – considering my choice not to have children myself – wondering what’s going to happen to me.”

The above, should you want to consider it as such, is an open letter to parents of my generation. Here’s the thing: 100% of us are going to die, which will definitely not be the worst thing that ever happens: just look at all the great people who have already done it. Most of us will need some degree of care by someone, in the months or years leading up to our deaths. Some of us have more choices about our final years than others, but there may be ways to get through our geezerhood without upending our children’s lives – if we talk with them about it.

Caregiving6       It might be a conversation worth having.

 

On Being High on Cities

For a small-town girl, I am embarrassingly in love with cities. Their energy, their sometime sophistication, their proud histories, their devil-may-care attitude toward the constantly undulating (some fast, some pokey) throngs of their citizens as they go about doing whatever it is that city people incessantly do.Prague castle

I fell for Prague the first step I took onto the first of its cobblestone bridges spanning the centuries of its brave survival of constant conquest and cultural assaults. A guide in the Prague Museum taught me a lesson worth a college semester with one proud sentence, “We do not have an army.” Thus giving this U.S.-raised citizen new insight into what armies can really mean.

In Bruges my husband and I discovered out-of-the-way museums and savored chocolate (ink-dark for him; pale for me) with our coffee while watching the canal boats.Bruges canal But mostly we wandered the endlessly wandering streets. It was in Bruges that we perfected the phrase employed for so many years throughout so many other cities, from Chicago to Shanghai: “Let’s just walk.”

I love Porto Alegre not just for being the city of my birth – the last sultry thing I ever did, I often say, was being born in Brazil – but for its mix of gentle warmth and cowboy swagger. On the single visit I made to the place where my father had helped start the Instituto Porto Alegre my husband and I were treated like royalty by representatives of that august institution. We were feted with meat-heavy banquets, tours and an organ concert and sent off with a bouquet of flowers; what’s not to love about a city offering that to a stranger?

Paris. Well, Paris.

DunhuangMy experience of China was one two-week excursion with the Oakland Museum Art Guild, which clearly makes me an expert on all things Chinese including its cities. So. While I loved the bustle (and the leafy former French Concession) of Shanghai, and marveled at the frenetic pace of both Shanghai and Beijing, Dunhuang stole my heart. Maybe because it’s been around since – oh, 2,000 B.C., there was something casually settled about Dunhuang. Everyone seemed to move more slowly, wrapped in the desert air, smilingly unconcerned with invading tourists, of whom there were not so many as elsewhere. When I asked one colorfully-dressed woman, through several bungled words and a lot of stupid gestures, if I might take a picture of her adorable tiny daughter, she grinned, pulled me to her side and insisted in a flurry of rapid-fire instructions to a passerby that he take a picture of the three of us, the toddler nestled happily in my arms. How could I not love Dunhuang?

I was in St. Petersburg at the end of a river trip from Moscow that had been pure joy and a time of revelation. But I had OD’d on castles. Plus, I really wanted to see the Dostoevsky Museum, which was not on the agenda for my tour group.Dostoevsky Museum So I set out on my own, equipped with a map by which I planned to count bridges and a total ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet. My secret weapon was the ability to approach perfect strangers, point to my map and say, “Dostoevsky Musee?” in my most beseeching Southern accent. Six or seven instructors in I wound up with a polite gentleman who suggested, in severe Slavic gestures, that it would be best if he lead me there. I would never otherwise have found the nondescript entry into the apartment where the great man himself lived his last months, a small but remarkable museum that leaves one feeling as if Fyodor just stepped out for a drink. I was mesmerized by St. Petersburg.

Though I will always leave, and find, my heart in San Francisco, it can get a little fickle about New York. A recent visit coincided with the Twin Towers memorial lights of 9/11, and visits to two of my favorite museums in the world: the Whitney & the Morgan Library, and a stroll of the High Line from end to end and back.

Twin Towers Lights 9.11.19A discussion about New Yorkers could’ve been a discussion of city people anywhere. My New Yorker friend argued that his compatriots are rude and insensitive. I said, “I can stand at the top, or the bottom, of any flight of stairs anywhere with my carry-on bag, and within 30 seconds someone will appear and ask, ‘Would you like help with that, ma’am?’ Never fails. People are people, just more densely so in cities.

Oceans and beaches and mountains and parks remain full of wonder for me; cities are full of wondrous humankind.

Life, Death and Rebirth 2019

Note paperThe envelope is lying right here on my left, now looking altogether spooky. It is even stamped and addressed; that’s how close I was to getting a note into the mail.

Then the phone rang. The note was to begin, “So, how are things going? How’s Gerry? How are you holding up?” The envelope is addressed to Gerry’s wife Kathy.

Several months ago our old, dear friend Gerry, age 75, was looking after the horses on their beautiful Southern California ranch when his heart failed. They got him to the hospital, but then came the bad news: his heart could not be revived or repaired. His only option would be a transplant. The good news? Because he was strong and otherwise healthy, he was a good candidate for a new heart. The further bad news? In order to be on the transplant list he would need to remain in the hospital, in intensive care, ready.Heart in circle

Kathy and Gerry are what I would call salt-of-the-earth Good People. They are deeply religious, clean-living and hard-working, and committed to living lives of service and gratitude. Within a few days of Gerry’s diagnosis they found themselves in the unenviable position of waiting for someone, somewhere, to die. Some generous someone who had signed agreements for his organs to be donated. (It would presumably be a ‘he,’ as Gerry is a fairly big guy, and would need a heart coming from someone roughly of equal size and weight.) After talking with Kathy early on in this saga I found myself also having queasy thoughts: How hard should I pray for some good person – do bad people sign organ donor forms? – to die in order for Gerry to live? It is an across-the-board existential dilemma.

The longer he remained in intensive care, the further Gerry’s condition deteriorated. This  presented a scary picture but pushed him higher on the recipient list. In other words, the worse he got, the more urgent his need, the higher his spot on the transplant list. Another existentially fraught situation.

They waited.

New life - typewriterOn August 15 (or perhaps the hours before August 15 dawned,) a 34-year-old man died in another state. A man who was on life support in a hospital because at some earlier point he had taken the generous step of signing organ donor forms. One of Gerry’s doctors flew to that hospital, examined the heart, confirmed it to be a very good match for Gerry, and boarded another jet plane back to Southern California. Gerry was already opened up, his original heart beating – with a lot of help from outside sources – outside his body.

He is already back home. Part of the somehow endearing characteristics of these two old friends of ours is that they do not have email or participate in any social media. So it’s taken Kathy time to get around to calling friends with this lovely update.

Somewhere in the southwest a grieving family is saying goodbye to a 34-year-old they had not expected to lose. “Gerry cries every time he thinks of him,” Kathy says. “There are just no words.”Birthday candles

Other than these: “August 15th is his new birthday.”

 

Paying New Year’s Blessings Forward

noah & zahraIn a new year with meanness and cruelty on the news every day, there are counter forces at work. Here is my favorite Pay-It-Forward story so far for 2019. It involves my lovely friend Eva Zimmerman, who agreed to let me to share it. Eva and her husband, Noah Schreck, welcomed their first child, daughter Zahra, into the world last spring. But the exuberant joy they were having was interrupted by Noah’s diagnosis of colon cancer, requiring surgery in December.

On January 2, Eva posted this story (lightly edited here) on Facebook.

“Noah is home! He has a lot more healing and resting (and eating) to do to get back to his old self and Zahra is being super helpful by screaming and screeching at a newly-discovered ear piercing volume, constantly. We’ll readjust and recalibrate and make this work. We’re thankful to be together.

“We are so fortunate to have so much support. Meals waiting on the porch, welcome signs and ice cream delivered, childcare, and just the love and prayer that we’ve felt this entire time… Thank you, all.eva, noah, zahra

“As I was leaving the hospital with all of Noah’s belongings, taking everything to the car to load it and go pick him up in the patient loading zone, I stood watching a beautiful young black couple comforting each other as they were waiting for the parking lot elevator. The elevator opened, she entered, he motioned for me to go ahead of him, he held the door open for me. As we stood there, heading to the same parking lot floor, he wished me a Happy New Year. I told him that it truly was a Happy New Year, that I was taking my husband home today after almost two weeks in the hospital.

“The woman said, ‘Our son will be here for the next two weeks.’ I told her I hoped he’d be home soon, healthy. She said, ‘Hoping for soon and cancer-free.’ I told her, ‘My husband is leaving today, cancer-free.’ She said, ‘This is why he’s here, they are doing surgery to remove his cancer.’ I told her that this is exactly why my husband has been here, they got it, they got the cancer, and he’s leaving today cancer-free. She and I held hands and I said, ‘I’m sending the blessing to you all now. It’s with you now.’ As we walked to our cars, she told her husband of the chills that went through her and simultaneously, they went through me.noah & zahra1 Though incredibly hard, we’ve been protected through this, because of you all. I gave that protection and blessing back to another family just as we left. It was a moment I’ll never forget. I don’t know their name. But as I write this, I’m watching Noah sleep next to me, and I’m thinking of them, envisioning their son home safe, soon and cancer-free.”

Take that, meanness.

All in the Digital Family

stick family“Welcome to the family!” chirped my new Inbox message. It was filled with so many little hearts and emojis I initially felt I must have been adopted into some friendly group sharing my religious or philosophical leanings. Its presentation, which would have been entirely fitting for such an invitation, was overwhelming in its warm-fuzziness.

Actually, all I had done was order a watchband.

Unwilling to pay the highway robbery prices that the digital watch people wanted for a replacement band at their store, and tired of my cute young manicurist wearing herself out with futile efforts to clean my old watchband, I had gone on an online search. watchbandsThere are more watchband choices out there than lipstick shades. But I persevered. On about page 43 I found a band identical to the highway-robbery-priced one, clicked off my $12.99 and hit Send. That, apparently, granted me entrance into the family.

Actually, this is not exactly a one-time thing. It appears that every online purchase I have made, plus just about every cause I have supported, has brought me into the circle of extended-family items (Watchband? You’re going to love these earphones!) or communications. “Thank you for your support” tends to be followed by daily updates and hourly pleas for further support, not to mention invitations to support like-minded causes. And if you’d like to keep your watchband selection private? Forget it. digital marketingFacebook now knows. Every company related to watchbands now knows. You will be so bombarded with watchband-related ads in between posts from your real life Facebook friends you may find yourself saying, one day, “What the heck, maybe I should order that power cord; my power cord is frayed . . .” Resist that urge. Go to Walgreen’s and buy it; they already know everything about you from all those Club Card purchases anyway.

Here’s the thing. Who among us has not purchased something online, Liked something on Facebook or Instagram, or sent off a contribution to a worthy cause? In truth (unless you subscribe to Rudy Giuliani’s assessment that truth is not truth) each of those transactions immediately welcomed us into some extended, digitally-connected family, and 99% of the universe is, by similar fates, right there with us. It is a downright incestuous situation.

international-peace-doveBut we should at least have world peace.

Can Love & Prayer Save 2 Small Boys?

My friends Susan and Andy Nelson threw over successful careers (his in law, hers in corporate America) some time ago to join the foreign service. They spent two years in Managua, Nicaragua, two years in Hanoi, and are now representing our country — the very best of our country — in Delhi, India. Susan posted the following on her Facebook page recently. It’s been tugging at my heart every day since; I hope it will tug at yours:

 

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people sitting and food
Chandan and Nandan

Last Friday we received the devastating news that the High Courts of India decided to reunite these two beautiful boys with their physically abusive parents, for a one month trial. Our family sponsors Chandan and we do monthly play dates at the children’s home where they live. The father is out on parole after serving a shorter than expected sentence for murder. And the mom is violent, threatening, and unrelenting in her struggle for power. The boys were forced by their parents to beg as street dancers, like trained monkeys, which is what led to their rescue and move to the children’s home two years ago. The parents will be back in court on Nov 14, fighting for permanent custody. If they win, these kids will slip through our fingers – likely forever. Between now and Nov 14, Andy and I are trying to do anything we can to influence the Court’s decision that day. We’ve reached out to lawyers, reporters, clergy, friends, child welfare advocates, even a Nobel Peace Prize winner – and now I’m reaching out to you. I believe in the power of prayer. And even if you don’t, hopefully we all believe in the power of LOVE. Please shine your love and light into the world for Chandan and Nandan – every day, several times a day, when you lay your head down on your pillow each night, when you wake up and have your morning coffee….PLEASE!

Image may contain: 3 people, including Susan Johnson Nelson, people smiling, people sitting, people eating, table, child, food and indoor
The Nelsons with one Nelson son & his playmates

Please keep these boys in your heart for the next 3 weeks – and send love to them, to their parents, to the courts, to the children’s home where they are loved and where they were safe, to the child welfare watchdogs….to everyone involved! Our love can influence this decision on Nov 14. I believe that. Andy and I are working every angle, chasing every lead or creative idea we can think of, here in Delhi. If you could do the loving part – HARD – we would be forever grateful! Please don’t stop!

 

Seems like prayer, if you’re into praying, and hard loving wherever you stand on prayer,  are easy things to do.

Gun Rights? How About No-Gun Rights?

This column is about guns, and the fact that I do not like them.

Guns1I wrote about all this once long ago, on the late lamented news aggregate site True/Slant, and the vitriol that landed upon my page in response made me very glad that my T/S readers didn’t know where I lived. I mean, it was if the NRA had put out a worldwide hit on me. I’m now counting on the belief that most of my current readers are kinder and gentler – since you can sure find out where I live if you don’t already know. And I’m satisfied that most of my angry T/S readers long ago quit following this blog. We’ll see.

What has my dander up is the recent ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that somebody’s right to carry – and show off – guns in public overrides my right to live in peace without having to worry about people swaggering around with their guns in my face. Say what?guns2

I have a lot of gun friends whom I love and admire. They use their guns to hunt legal game, and I think that’s good and proper. As far as I know, none of them feel compelled to strut around their local Starbucks with pistols on their hips.

My dislike of guns could be more correctly defined as fear. I’m not afraid of guns in the holsters of law enforcement officers, believing that their carriers are properly trained (and having grown up white I never had to fear police.) I’m just afraid of guns on the hips of unknown macho guys. If they’re swaggering around at Starbucks, I will definitely throw up my latte. Do I not have ANY right to drink a latte in public without throwing up?

Guns3When I was a child of about 12 someone broke into our home – well, nobody locked their doors in Ashland, VA in 1945 so he probably just opened the door and walked in – and made his way to the second-floor bedroom of my oldest sister Jane, who let out a mighty scream. The intruder left multiple hand prints on the newly painted walls as he swiftly descended the stairs (and left by another door.) But by the time the Richmond police arrived they pronounced the fingerprints too dim to be of use, so our nocturnal visitor was never identified. My family (4 girls + parents) that night morphed from 6 people in five beds to 6 people in two beds – Jane in between my mother and father; the other three of us in one double bed. (It took us several weeks to expand back into our individual beds.) The next day, our father bought a gun. It went to reside on a shelf in the closet of our parents’ bedroom. We all knew where it was; once or twice my sister Mimi and I stood on a lower shelf and looked at it. But instead of making us feel safer and protected, the thing created more fear. Despite all his stories about working on somebody’s ranch in Texas as a boy, my sisters and I (and our mother, I regret to report) feared our father’s probable ineptitude with a gun more than we feared another intruder. We had belatedly also begun to lock the doors. All five of us – mother + 4 daughters – also feared the fearsome instrument on the closet shelf more than we feared anyone who might be confronted by it. Overruled by us all, my father soon (I think it took less than a couple of weeks) took the gun back to wherever it came from.guns4

I had one more encounter with a gun. Working as a reporter for local newspapers in Decatur, GA in the early 1960s, I was convinced by some misguided other newsperson to go to a shooting range, in conjunction with some sort of story. The people there convinced me everything was just fine and I would see how easy it was to hit the target. Eventually I fired the stupid thing, and the noise, jolt and whatever nearly frightened me to death. I probably missed the target by more miles than was ever before known.

I submit the above only as argument that people who fear guns should have SOME rights to balance whatever the “Open Carry” (read: people who want to strut around showing off their representative lethal weapons) Second Amendment rights purportedly are.

Guns5 You need to swagger manfully around with a pistol on your hip? Fine. Swagger somewhere else – like, on a shooting range. Just stay out of my Starbucks. All I want is to drink my latte in gun-free peace.

Take that, Ninth Circuit. I only wish you would.