Companion for the Journey

Several close friends and I are immersed in the heartbreaking work of caring for elderly parents who are fading.

One friend’s father is growing more and more forgetful. When she asks what he had for dinner, he can’t recall whether or not he ate. But they conclude he must have eaten, because his caregiver would have made sure he did. He’s in his 80’s and his heart condition is responsible for the memory loss. It’s so hard to realize that this man, who had been an incisive school administrator with a sharp wit, can’t recall if he took his pills or not.

Another close friend’s 86-year-old father is very frail and losing the battle with congestive heart failure. He’s thin, weak and his heart and kidneys can’t keep up with the demands of moving blood and removing excess fluid. The sports teams he used to love to watch barely stir his interest now—he’s too tired and worried to care about a touchdown.

My 91-year-old mother has grown more forgetful in the last six months, and she knows it. For years, she could be counted on to manage all of the household and financial details while she cared for my Dad, whose health was deteriorating. Her sister Corinne was also in poor health recently, and Mom helped manage her affairs, too.  Now, however, Mom

Mom, me, Aunt Corinne

relies on extensive notes so she can recall phone conversations, her plans for the day, or what to tell the doctor—not just a list of topics to cover with him, but the logic behind her requests. Today, she’s still able to manage living in her own home with the help of my siblings and me. But who knows how much longer that will work?

My friends and I are all take-charge women. We know how to solve problems and get things done. What’s hard is the realization that there’s little we can do to change the course of events. We can’t “fix” our parent’s health issues—whether memory loss or congestive heart failure. For them, there’s no going back to great health. Instead, we try to slow the decline, help them stay as long as possible on each new plateau.

I’m working on accepting the inevitable. I’m trying to be Mom’s companion for the journey.

I’m doing my best to enjoy Mom while she’s here. So we talk, I give her homemade cookies, I help with household chores when I visit, and when she says, “You know, I’m not going to be around forever,” I look her in the eye and say, “Yes, I know.” I believe it’s important to let her say what’s in her heart and not dismiss her feelings with fake cheeriness. But the moment passes and we refocus on having fun—a good meal, a good laugh, a good memory. A lot of days, that’s enough.

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