Eularee Smith
Writer & Educator

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Trading Spaces

I am writing this in the early hours before dawn. Unable to sleep, I try to make sense of the nonsense that is my daily life at age 61. Recently celebrating my birthday and the first step into my sixth decade, it seems this time in my life is when I am undeniably an adult. The proof in this, is that I am trading spaces with my 91 year old mother in law who is becoming the child I care for.

Not sure exactly when the transition began, but I was never more fullly aware of it than yesterday.

Her recent fall resulting in a broken arm and a stay in a nursing home for close to a month was the catalyst for finally insisting on an alternative living arrangement. After speaking with social workers, physical therapists, and her doctor, she agreed that moving to a modified independent apartment would be her preference. I have known her for over forty years. I knew better.

Her mood and attitude improved when she came home from the rehab facility. Still not where the doctor wanted her to be, her insurance would no longer pay for the help she was receiving. I moved in to care for her 24/7 for about a week. That is when it all began to devolve. 

She was fine as long as I was there. She would eat healthy meals I prepared. She drank plenty of fluids that I supplied and took her meds (very few in comparison to most) regularly. Everyday there was improvement, until the subject came up about the move. Then suddenly her true nature revealed itself. Heels dug in, she refused to go and threatened to stop taking her meds and eating if we force her. 

When I asked her what would be her perfect solution to the problem at hand, her response was quick and simple. 

"I want to die."

I reminded her this was not one of the choices, but she insisted she would just sit on the couch until it happened. This is almost a week later and everyday is a battle. I do not believe that either of us will be victorious. This is beyond a child who will not eat their veggies or refuses to put on a jacket or go to school. This is a 91 year old woman, a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother. Walking a fine line between respect for the wisdom of her age and the knowledge that her short term memory and reasoning skills have diminished greatly seems to be a losing proposition. 

Though I fail constantly at trying to ease her suffering, I must somehow find the courage to face the storm and as an adult, do the right thing. She says she never thought she'd end up like this. I empathize, as I, too, never imagined having to be in this role. As the days pass and the move approaches she becomes more sullern, verbally abusive and relentless in her refusal. The family has rallied around but I know the blame falls squarely on my shoulders.

My Dad used to say that when a parent disciplines a child, it is the parent who suffers most. Although I am not in the role of disciplinarian, I understand that this is true of my situation. I do not expect the hell to end soon as we trade spaces between mother (in law) and child. But this whippersnapper of only 61 years is praying she doesn't get taken down in the process. 

More and more of our generation is facing the decisions of caring for an elder parent. What has been the most challenging situation you have faced in trading spaces? Was it taking the drivers license? Bringing in extra help? Or just starting the conversation? 

Images: Flickr image by a4gpa


Walking the green mile

Stephen King's celebrated chapter books The Green Mile, tell the story of John Coffey's last days on Death Row and Paul Edgecomb, the corrections officer. Edgecomb walks with Coffey down the green mile and stands witness to his execution.

That is as best a description as I can give to the death sentence that my mother in law experienced as she walked down the corridor of the retirement community we recently visited. Her feet became firmly planted at the door as we looked at an alcove apartment. Crossing the threshold was like taking the first step, placing one foot in the grave.

I watched her face go ashen as she looked around.

"It's fine," she mumbled. And headed back to the door as fast as the walker would move.

The Marketing Director smiled.

"We get this all the time," she said comfortingly.

We walked a little further down the hall to the apartment of a friend of hers who also lives in the building. But her pace slowed with every step. The friends embraced each other and sat at the table to chat while I went to look at other apartment options.

We spent a nice afternoon, having lunch, chatting about the changes that life had brought to both of them. We promised to visit again when my mother in law felt better. For the next couple of hours, she grieved.

We talked about wild alternatives that were no more realistic than turning back the hands of time. But talking in circles always brings you back to the same place. A place, like the green mile, with a one way door. These conversations are so difficult. You are torn between wanting the very best for your loved ones and listening to their pleas to stay put. It is important to listen, talk, listen and talk some more.

Somehow it was easier when my father in law had to be moved. He suffered from Alzheimer's for 10 years and finally we were no longer able to care for him. He didn't know us and little of anything else by the time we made the decision. But with my mother in law, it is the opposite. Her mind is sharp but her body is failing. We want her to have a choice despite her insistence that she wants nothing to do with it and wants us to just make the decision.

This Green Mile is yet another challenging course along the journey of life. I wish we could change it or somehow fast forward a few months, jumping ahead of the entire mile. Everyone, including her friend, assures us that she will wonder why she didn't do it sooner. That's the door I want her to walk through. Until then we hold hands and walk one step at a time.

Are you walking the mile with your loved one?

Images: Flickr image by ^riza^


It Takes A Village To Move An Elder

Everyone understands the idea of a village raising a child. But the same is true for an elder. The decision to uproot your life and home to move into an essentially foreign territory are not easily made and often left to loved ones. 

My mother in law is 91 years old, still a red-head, and has been the immovable object for the past couple of years despite countless efforts by her physicians, friends and family to keep her safe and relatively happy. I say relatively because my mother in law has a cup half empty attitude about most things in life. But her refusal to move in with us or have housecleaning or Meals on Wheels or any sort of assistance has landed her on her keester, literally for the last time. Her recent fall resulted in a broken arm and life in a skilled care facility for the past month.

It has been painfully decided that an alternative living arrangement must be made. She refuses to be a part of the decision making process stating that she does not want to look and for us to decide. Of course, she adds, that she only wants a room with a bed and no window as she is never getting up again. This woman, despite her longevity, has not aged well. 

Tomorrow we will be taking her to have lunch at what will hopefully be her new digs. It is a modified independent living community. Her one bedroom apartment is downsizing from a 3 bedroom house but will be much more manageable and more importantly, safe. The staff is so genuine and with so much to do and the residents more independent in their routines than most places we looked at, we think she will be much happier when she settles in. A point in our favor is that she knows someone there and her apartment is just a few doors down on the same floor - instant neighbors!

With the help of three adult grandchildren and six great grandchildren, friends and neighbors we will move this grand lady to her new home and celebrate the beginning of yet another chapter in her life. In the Native American culture all members of the village care for the elders. The elders in turn provide wisdom and experience to the young parents and children.

So it seems fitting that as a village of loved ones, we will reassure her that this journey is not yet over as we continue to walk together. And maybe this village can help her see that her cup truly is full.

For those of you who are caregivers, you know the anguish and stress that has been ours. I will chronicle this journey and hope that you will share your own stories of caring for the elders in your village.


They are only things

I have had to remind myself of late that downsizing is not such a bad thing. At least on the surface it all makes sense. Clean up the clutter. Rearrange. Out with the old in with the new. Less to dust, clean or put away. I even have rules. If you haven't worn it, used it, played with it or loaned it in more than two years, it goes into the Goodwill box. They are only things.

But I am mostly all talk. Sure, there are clothes, shoes, even a few books like "How to make the most of your Mac Classic", that need to come out of moth balls and hop away from the dust bunnies. Those things are not the problem. Then there are the things that go beyond the word "thing". They have personalities, stories; a history filled with memories that the Goodwill couldn't possibly put a price on. 

One of those things is an Underwood typewriter no. 5 that sits on my bookshelf. Kids are fascinated by it, pushing the keys down and watching the linkage fling the letter onto a smudgy black ribbon, leaving an impression of the letter on the paper. Magic, as far as a child is concerned. But other than its curiosity appeal, the heavy cast iron machine has not seen the likes of its former glory days in decades. Nonetheless it stands proudly as a reminder of the thousands of hours my father's fingers touched the keys and all the stories as a result.

It is a bear to dust, but I do it lovingly. They keys become stuck and the letters entwined. But I gently lift and pull them apart so they may rest in their proper position. The ribbons are impossible to find. My father moved on to computers long before he died but still he never sold or gave away the Underwood typewriter. He even called himself "The Underwood man" and whenever technology failed, he would swear he was going to get out the Underwood. When he passed away, I found boxes of stories, manuscripts and letters laboriously typed on the machine that gave life to the words that flowed from his hands.

How do you leave those treasures in the Goodwill box? I suppose someday, that is exactly where it will find itself. Or perhaps some great great grandchild will bring the old cast iron soul to an Antiques Roadshow and be shocked by the appraisal. But for now the Underwood typewriter is one of the items in my home that is not a thing and certainly not for eBay. And try as I might to rid myself of all those "only things" that surround me with clutter, the Underwood will always have a place to tell its story for generations. Who cares what's in your wallet? The real question is, what's in your attic?


Climbing the rock wall

We are all familiar with the signs of aging. Grey hair, wrinkles, the occasional aches and pains and affects of gravity are what we all expect. But there are a few subtle signs that sneak up on us and have an even more dramatic affect on our aging journey. Like climbing a rock wall, the challenge is finding the right hand hold to pull ourselves securely up.

I recently went on a virtual retreat with Carol Orsborn, Ph.D. Her blog is Fierce With Age. Orsborn offered a 2 week virtual retreat this summer. Receiving relevant material in my inbox each day, I spent time assessing my tools for the climb.

Carol's first question was to write down all the attirbutes of someone you know who, in your estimation, was aging well and someone who was not aging well. By doing this simple analysis, I could see what was important in my own process of yearly increase. This was more about attitude than looks. As we climb up in years, the wall becomes unfamiliar and we need to rely on more than our vision of what age looks like. 

I invite you to take a moment to navigate as we move into uncharted territory. Some challenges can be exhilarating but there are also moments of confusion and fear. How will we afford to retire? Medicines, physical challenges all become new obstacles on the wall that play into our attitudes and views of aging.

It takes a keen eye and an open mind to be masters of our domain. The core of this idea is to understand what we want out of life. Quality not quantity is the hallmark of this transition. Write down the qualities of the person you feel is aging well. Focus on adjectives that describe the personality rather than their physical looks. Do the same for a person who is not aging well. 

Reading through the list, do you see any attributes that you may have in common? How do these compare to your own aging experience? Analyze these characteristics and see how they apply to your success ratio. Check out online retreats by Carol Orsborn, Ph.D on Fierce With Age and find pratical solutions to keeping the mind engaged in the navigation of the aging journey ahead.

The aging wall may be an uphill climb, but finding the right hand or foot hold makes it well worth the journey.

Photo image: Flickr image by oruwu, contact David Hallock