I’ve been spending much of my time this summer with oldies. To define my terms (as I am not exactly a youngie myself), by “oldies” I am referring to people in their late 80’s and 90’s.
And this I can tell you:
It’s coming at us. The end of days.
I’m not so much referring to that good night into which Dylan Thomas instructs us not to go gentle. There is a step before death (remember? – “Rage, rage against the dying of the light“); these are the final days, months, years of one’s life. That is the great unknown. Death and decline may come upon us quickly or slowly, early or late – but the actuaries tell us that most of us will live into our eighties and will experience several years of increasing deterioration prior to death.
So – back to the oldies I have been with this summer.
Aunt A (age 99) has just moved into a care facility, after 30-odd years of living on her own, and is somewhat oh-well about it all. Aunt B (85), who lives with her daughter’s family, has been diagnosed with Altzheimers and is philosophically observing the gradual loss of her memory. Aunt C (a spry 89) has just had her daughter move in with her. Aunt D (93) is arthritic and nearly immobile, blind and has lost a great deal of memory. She hates the facility in which she finds herself and carries a bottomless sorrow.
Of course, most of my time has been spent with my mother (92). She has been single-handedly tending her home and large gardens on the waterfront in Nanaimo BC, with a few hours of help here and there from a gardener and a cleaner (and summerfuls of support from Rick and myself). However, she’s recognised that she can’t quite manage on her own now. She feels she wouldn’t do well in a retirement home (“not my cup of tea”) and I tend to agree with her. So she’s made the decision to stay at home and find someone to live with her.
This may be one of the toughest choices she’s ever made, and she fights day-to-day to stay connected to it. She’s from a generation that valued independence above all, and now, when her energy and faculties don’t provide her with the strength they used to, it’s hard to deal with the idea that a tenant, a stranger, will come into her space, share her kitchen, consume one of her bedrooms.
Enter Kyle. He responded enthusiastically to our ad for a housemate and part-time chauffeur/jar-lid-remover/tap-fixer. Kyle is 28, self-employed and entrepreneurial, kindly, good-humoured, focused, quiet and self-assured. His referees think he’s wonderful. So in a couple of weeks, Kyle will move into the waterfront house and Mum’s life will take on a whole new complexion. Friends and relatives will keep an eye on both of them, but Mum will carry the brunt of the burden of change.
I’ve always enjoyed a bit of chaos, and so has Mum, really, until recent years. But this whole business of cleaning out the garage, emptying closets and desks, moving 53 beautiful homemade clocks – it’s all a bit much when you’re 92 and deserving your turn at a bit of peace and quiet.
The arrangement may or may not work out. It will depend on both Kyle‘s and Mum‘s ability to dance with change – not a predictable skill in anyone.
I’d like to share a comment that you might have missed on my last week’s blog post. It’s from Louise Machinist, co-author of My House, Our House, about the adventures of three women who purchased a house together and for the last ten or so years have shared their lives and finances. Perhaps Louise’s comment generated the flavour of the week I’ve just spent, or perhaps she and I are simply walking a well-travelled path at the same time. At any rate, she said:
‘We might just make it in the end.’ Not sure what you were thinking [when you said that], but here’s my take: we will all die; the journey will end. I am trying to really accept that on the emotional level. Intellectually, it is easy. Currently, I am advocate and caretaker for my 88-year-old Dad, who is in end stage cancer, and 91-year-old Mom. Not full time caretaking, because they live in a retirement community, but lots of support is needed and time is very short.
Oddly, although I am working hard to meet all needs on their behalf, I’m experiencing a mental parallel universe: I don’t really care much how I end up or who takes care of me. For now, it is enough to live happily in a supportive co-household, savoring a wonderfully privileged and rich life. As we age, it is reassuring to know that we 3 housemates can buy support services as a group that none could afford alone.
And here’s Louise’s closing kicker:
Living in community, no one needs to take life’s final journeys alone.
I am a long way from saying that Louise and her housemates, or I and the Shedders, have the answers and have chosen the right path. Heading into the abyss, there is definitely no right path, no predictable route for which we can prepare well. But of one thing I am fairly certain: I will not want to take that final journey alone, or unsupported.
Let us keep our loved ones close by, keep practicing the dance, and be prepared to bring in the Kyles when we need them.