“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes: 1:9
Caring for aging parents is nothing new. Had we been privy to a family discussion in Bedrock, we might have heard a middle-aged Pebbles and Bambam discussing what was to be done with the widow Wilma who was found wandering the streets at three a.m.—minus her leopard skin.
I am one of the thirteen million baby boomers caring for an aging parent. Although I’m not alone, the particulars of my situation may be somewhat different. I not only take care of my ninety-year-old mother but also of my husband, who has been battling lung cancer and prostate cancer for eight years. There are similar problems in both kinds of caregiving: fatigue, burnout, time management, haggling with insurance companies, communicating with medical personnel, and making life and death decisions. But if you ask me which is more difficult, I would say taking care of my mother exacts the more emotional toll.
Both kinds of caregiving have required me to accept the mortality of a loved one, and subsequently my own mortality. Having been told my husband’s cancer is incurable, I teeter between hope and despair. There is always the hope he will get better, seesawing with the fear that he won’t. While his death might be inevitable, it is not imminent.
With my mother there is no seesawing, just a downward slide. Death is both inevitable and imminent. I can hope for a little more time with her, but I know the aging process will culminate in death—most likely in the near future. That prospect is sad but not tragic. We expect our parents to die before we do.
Parents are a buffer between us and death. As long as we have a living parent, it seems that we are protected from the grim reaper. Watching my mother age is frightening because I see what lies ahead for me. All of the vitamins, spas, plastic surgery, and good clean living won’t stop the inevitable. If I’m lucky, I, too, will grow old and feeble. My children will, as I do now, and as Pebbles and BamBam did before me, struggle with taking care of their mother. Will they be torn between their personal needs and mine? Already my daughters joke that they need to start looking for a nursing home that will meet my needs: good feng shui, gourmet health food, no wake up calls before eight a.m., and a van that provides scheduled trips to the Galleria. Unlike my mother, I am high maintenance.
No doubt, my adult children will also be plagued by the notion they can never do enough. How is it possible to repay all that a mother does for her children? Mothers put their children first, as they should. Children put their own children first, as they should. When the mother becomes the child, it is hard to make the shift.
The role reversal is difficult to absorb. We expect our infants to be helpless; we even enjoy their dependence on us. I never objected to changing baby diapers but adult diapers are another story. I loved to watch my baby, snoring gently, mouth open, drooling as she slept. My mother—not so much. Obstinacy in a three-year-old is tolerable, but an unreasonable adult is infuriating. I didn’t expect my two-year-old to understand everything I told her, but I’m not used to having to explain things to my very-intelligent mother whose thought processes continue to slow down. I want to shake her and say, “Stop it! You’re scaring me. I just told you that five minutes ago.” If I could voice my inexpressible fear, I would say, “Please don’t get old. Please be the same mother I’ve always known. Don’t leave me.”
Cancer caregiving is stressful, but when my husband was diagnosed, I was at a place in life where I could drop everything and devote myself to taking care of him. Compared to some, I’ve had it easy—no job to hold down, no children at home, good insurance, and plenty of emotional support. I gladly gave up some of my activities because I wanted to be with him. I did nothing from a sense of duty and I had no reason to feel guilty.
With my mother I am tormented by guilt—which is surprising because she has never used guilt to manipulate me. Yet, I feel guilty when I am short with her, guilty when I don’t want to stay with her, and guilty because I’d rather be doing a whole bunch of other things. I feel like the very-bad-daughter of the very-good-mother. Guilt in the mother-daughter relationship is inevitable because if we’ve had a good mother, we can never give her all that she deserves.
I am certain that when my mother dies, I will be full of regret. For now, I do the best I can—reminding myself frequently how lucky I am to have a mother to take care of.