My grandparents died when they were relatively young, and so my mother and her siblings never had to care for them in their old age. They have all experienced a different set of challenges.
When I was growing up, I often heard my mother lament that nursing homes were sad places. She would say things like, “It’s just so sad. People just take old people there and leave them and then never visit.” This was always said with a certain amount of superciliousness. She would never do anything like that. Shame on those families who just drop an old person at one of those horrible places and never see them again!
I grew up thinking she was right. You go to a nursing home and you see all those bed-ridden or wheelchair-bound souls just hanging out in God’s waiting room and starved for attention of any kind. It’s hard not to think poorly of all those relatives who have forgotten them.
But here’s the thing I’ve learned over the past year: The non-visiting relatives and friends are probably staying away for their own well-being. They probably don’t think they can handle it. Maybe they are right. Maybe they are afraid to find out.
You see, elder-care is the toughest thing I’ve ever done and I’m no wimp. My childhood was no picnic. I put myself through college. I’ve worked with children who had cancer and domestic violence victims (and I do mean victims, not survivors, because they were still going through their ordeal when I met them). I once talked a suicidal person into handing me their gun. I’ve held the hand of a rape survivor while evidence was collected. I’ve been divorced. I’ve fired people. So, when I say, “the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” you should know there is some competition for that title. I’m not a gal who backs down from a challenge, and if I say caring for my mother-in-law is hard, damn it, you better believe me!
One of the most difficult aspects about managing her care is that we’ve already mourned her passing, and yet, physically, she’s still here. We miss the person she was before she fell. We miss the hope we had for her recovery. What we’ve been left with is this being who is alert and angry one day and so barely alive the next. The result of seeing her oscillate between these two extremes is emotional exhaustion—and I am tired in a way that none of the things I have mentioned in the above paragraph can even touch.
Yep, that is where we are. My husband and I are emotionally EXHAUSTED, and yet, I’m impressed that we have handled the past year as well as we have. Dare I say it—most people could not handle this. But we can and we have. That doesn’t mean we don’t get tired, angry, frustrated, etc. God knows, we do! And every day, I am thankful that we are remarkably strong people who get a little stronger each day. Before this all happened, I thought we had an uncommon amount of resilience and vitality. Now, I know we do.
In my moments of frustration, I think about how many of my mother-in-law’s friends and family members don’t visit her or call or even send a card, and I get really resentful on her behalf. I want to say they have abandoned her, but when I come off my high horse (his name is Sid), I remind myself that it may be emotionally crushing for some of them to see her as she is. They’ve already buried her and a visit is like exhuming a corpse.
I, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of pretending that she is gone or even of telling myself that I will visit or call tomorrow or next week or next month. Every now and then, I resent that, too. I don’t get to walk away because she’s right here in my house 24/7, and it’s been that way for over a year.
But here’s the thing: I believe God gives us the challenges we have for a reason. Other people get a different set of challenges because that’s what they need and not what I need.
You don’t have to agree with me on that. You can even be a complete skeptic about this and claim that I am searching for an explanation that just doesn’t exist, and that’s fine, but you should know that when I think of everything that happens in our lives—all the happiness and heartache—as being a part of a bigger picture, I’m a much more forgiving and compassionate person, and in the end, that’s what it is all about. Forgiveness and Compassion.