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.

 

Throw-Away Culture v The Planet

Building 2.16.17
Built in late 1980s

The very lovely, 12-story building in which I have lived for four+ years – along with 90 other condo-owning geezers, sometimes more delicately referred to as “retirees” or “seniors” but let’s face it – is about to embark upon an exterior repair job that will run upwards of $3 million. Repair. Not build, or upgrade, or renovate. Repair. This building is slightly over 25 years of age. (Its owners average generally at least three times that; are WE getting $3+ million repair jobs? We wish.)

Our building exterior is a material known as EIFS, which stands for Exterior Insulation Finishing System. According to its Wikipedia page, EIFS is “a general class of non-load bearing building cladding systems that provides exterior walls with an insulated, water-resistant, finished surface in an integrated composite material system,” in case you care. I am on the Homeowners Association board of directors. For a writer whose undergraduate degree was in Art and who was born essentially without a left brain, I know more about EIFS than I ever wanted to know; I can absolutely promise you that.

EIFS is still quite commonly in use. But I think they have figured out something that early EIFS people overlooked: using paper in an exterior building material is a very bad idea. Guess what happens when the sealant shrinks and water gets in and there’s paper involved. Our EIFS people hadn’t figured that out yet.

3965 Sacramento April '17
Built in 1905

Oh, well. What’s $3 or $4 million to fix a 25-year-old building? I do have to mention that the 4-story house we sold in order to move into this lovely building was itself built in 1905. Throughout a century or so of earthquakes and California rainy seasons (about half of which time it belonged to my husband  and/or the two of us) our exterior repair ran to a few thousand dollars in repainting every six or eight years. It is hard not to mention that I grew up in Virginia, where 18th century buildings (still doing fine) dot the landscape.

No offense to the building industry, but what’s wrong with building buildings to last more than 25 years without 4’ by 8’ panels falling off (yes, two of them did, in a bad storm earlier this year) in the middle of the night?

Building damage 1
(After the storm)

This essay started out to be all about planned obsolescence. EIFS buildings perhaps are not deliberately designed to become obsolete in a decade or two; ours just happened to fall into that category. And the above just came to mind as I was starting to write. But about planned obsolescence. It has its own Wikipedia page. According to that page, it “tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly” (which also has its own Wikipedia page.) It was inspired not by the building nightmare but by my recent experience with my beloved Epson printer/copier machine.

My beloved Epson WF 3520, age four years, took to printing in weird colors. After extensive cleaning of the print heads and performing other bewildering actions in the Systems menu, I persuaded it to resume printing photos (for instance) in absolutely true colors. But now it’s inserting disconcerting lines across peoples’ faces and stuff. Not good. I made a trip to the local Office Max where it was purchased four years ago to ask what else I might do to make the lines go away. The following conversation ensued:

Me: “Is there another Systems thing I can try?”

Office Max clerk (age 20-something): “Did you clean the print heads?”

Me (proudly): “Yes.”

OM: “And the nozzle?”

Me (hesitantly): “I think so.”

OM: “How long have you had it?”

Me: “About four years. I bought it here.”

OM: “Oh! That’s a pretty good run.”

Me (an aside that was totally lost on OM): “Clearly you weren’t born in 1933.”

But come on now, folks. Four years is a “pretty good run” for a $400+ machine used by a little old lady who doesn’t print out much beyond an occasional letter or a short story every now and then? God help us.

Old-time sales & service shop
The DiMele Bros repair shop in NYC

In the olden days, which are getting more olden by the day, there were places called Repair Shops. There was often one titled Mr. Fix-It. Alas, one does not repair anything much in this brave new day – one simply tosses it away and buys the latest new model. In San Francisco we do have a spot beloved by many, Phil’s Electric. (This is an unpaid plug.) If you have something electric that Phil’s can’t fix, you’ve probably worn it out over too many decades.

Things electronic, however, are another matter. You don’t wear out an iPhone 4, you discard it for the 5 and then the 6 and then the 7 and now maybe the 7S. Can you wear out a FitBit? Or an Apple Watch? Or any item gently referred to as a “device?” Nahh.Funky cellphone lady You can, without undue effort, lose them to theft, ineptitude or malfunction. In the latter case – see above re my lovely Epson – the good news is that function can actually be restored in some cases.

Having just done an internet search I find there are more than a few electronic repair places in San Francisco, so perhaps all is not lost. There’s even one near Phil’s Electric.

Moving Mom and Dad

The folks are getting on in years, the old house needs work, the Stuff is piling up everywhere — it’s time to look at moving. But the big question is, where to? Urban condo? Assisted living? Retirement village? LifeCare facility? Co-housing? Maybe even the dreaded Nursing home or dementia facility?

Making the decision to move into what is likely the last residence on this side of the hereafter can be daunting, sometimes devastating. Whether it involves oneself or one’s older family members, the Final Move often exhausts patience, finances and family resources. But good choices are out there, and good help (sometimes free, more often adding to the growing costs of this life event) can be found. In previous posts this space has offered glimpses of these choices and experiences: Helping Mom Die (10/16); Hanging in the ‘Hood (9/29); Justice Souter’s Retirement Housing (8/10.) What follows is a look into the LifeCare option. I should first insert a grateful nod to the source of this headline, a great book by Sarah Morse and Donna Quinn Robbins.

I have just returned from a visit with my sister Helen and her husband, newly installed in a spacious two-bedroom cottage at Kendal at Ithaca (NY), a Continuing Care Retirement Community. To do this necessitated cleaning out and selling (of course, the sale fell through when everything was on the moving vans, but last-minute calamity is to be expected) the far more spacious four-bedroom plus roof deck 1920s condominium in Boston they have called home for nearly 40 years. It was not pretty. Despite my earlier Boston visits to whittle down the Stuff factor and later urgings to connect Helen with the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization, the job tested the limits of patience and strength of their four extraordinarily loving children.

Nonetheless the deed did get done, and Kendal at Ithaca is perfect for Helen and Clare, thanks to a confluence of happy circumstances: their physician daughter has relocated from Seattle to Ithaca; Manhattan is a comfortable Cornell bus trip away; desired features are in place. KAI includes a community center with a dining room in which their monthly fees entitle them to one meal per day, a fitness center, a large library, a van to take residents to doctors’ appointments etc. Best of all, says Clare, who has Parkinson’s, “they can’t throw me out.” The major appeal of LifeCare, or Continuing Care communities, for many seniors, is the inclusion of facilities for different levels of care which one may require in the future. (Worst of all, Clare adds, is the fact that “we have a lot of Parkinson’s, so I see myself 3 years down the road… 6 years down the road.”)

Continuing Care communities do not come cheap. But for seniors who have a chunk of change from a home sale or other source and a comfortable retirement income, they fortunately exist in growing numbers across the country.

For my own part, and I am certainly very senior, I was suffering anxieties and depression after one day. I need regular infusions of 30-somethings and 40-somethings for basic survival. Again, from what I’ve heard about co-housing — the perfect choice for many others as they age — that arrangement would feel crowded and disorderly. But there is the growing aging-in-place “Village” movement, which many would not choose but seems perfect to me.

Thank heaven for choices. It is seldom too early for Boomers, or Beyonders, to start considering them — and while you’re at it, you may want to clean out the attic.