Aging with Dignity

My husband I recently escaped Vermont’s unforgiving cold and traveled to the west coast of Florida to visit with his aging parents – his mom nigh on eighty-five years; his dad approaching ninety. In the three or four months between visits, my husband speaks with them on the phone. Sometimes it goes like this: “Mom, it’s me Johnny, not Chris.” And, Dad, “You sound weak. Have you been eating?” Other times, it goes something like this: “Mom, Good. You’ve finally decided to listen to the doc. So you’re going to take your meds, right?” And, “Dad, it sounds like physical therapy is helping.” Still, we never quite know the truth of their physical and emotional state until we actually see them.

So, during our recent visit, we noticed marked changes: The progression of Mom’s macular degeneration, to the point where she needs to be with someone when leaving the house. As for Dad, if he walked for more than, say, a few feet, he’d wobble, nearly topple onto me. He’s fallen seven times in the past few months. Once he fell alongside his car (no, he does not drive anymore) and it took twenty minutes before someone found him. Fortunately, he did not suffer any injury. Unfortunately, he does not have one of those lifeline buttons – we have yet to convince him to get one.  And he’ll go hours, all day even, without eating: “I just don’t have the taste for food anymore.”

Since I’m the nurse in the family, Dad appointed me to speak-up at the appointment he conveniently scheduled during our trip to the Sunshine State. And we, the family, knew Dad wouldn’t speak up for himself: “I don’t want to take up too much of the doctor’s time.” So, when the doctor walked into the examining room, I was prepared with a list of requests: a physical therapy referral, a referral for a nutritionist to discuss Dad’s dietary needs, and another one for a home health aide to help with bathing.

Bingo! The physical therapist made it to his home within a couple of days and the home health aide two days after that. By the end of the week, Dad had perked-up and, though not his favorite culinary cuisine, ate some scrabbled eggs and a few jars of baby food. “I’m gonna listen to the physical therapist and do my exercises,” he said.

As for my mother-in-law, we have yet to assuage her fear of eye surgery. If she doesn’t go through with it in the next six months, her doctor says she’ll be blind. How then will she care for herself? If she can’t see Dad’s pills – the ones for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, leg spasms, depression – who will make sure that he takes them? How will they manage meals, get dressed, what we health care professionals call ADLs, or Activities of Daily Living? My in-laws are lucky in that one of their adult children lives with them while two others live nearby. They cook meals and pick up prescriptions and/or groceries, and they take Mom and Dad to medical appointments.


What happens to our elders who have no one to advocate for them, to make sure that, at the very least, they are fed, bathed, and dressed each day? Unless they, or a family member, are savvy with the complexities of our health care system – things like what insurance does and does not cover – or have the chutzpah to speak up for themselves, they go hungry, left un-bathed. At the end of the day, they are left bereft of dignity.

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From Fearless to Fearful




A few weeks ago my husband and his three adult children listened to a tape of poems and stories his dad and mom recorded back in 1989. “Come on Eva,” Tom says. “Speak into the recorder. You know you don’t have to have someone right in front of you to talk.”

She giggles, then says, “Your father thinks I’m afraid of the microphone. Do you kids know of anything I’m afraid of?”

A daughter of a poor farmer, she left school at age fourteen to work the land. A stay at home mom, she never thought she’d have the opportunity to finish school. But she didn’t give up. In her forties, she returned to school, got her GED. I remember the first time she shared her accomplishment with me – eight years ago. She sat up straight, her eyes full and round, and flashed me a wide smile.

Back in the day, Eva took a stance: she campaigned for George McGovern during his run for the presidency in 1972, protested against the Vietnam War and the commercial vineyards in California because of their poor treatment of migrant farmworkers. One never underestimated Eva. If one spoke ill of her or any of her eight children, she’d pull your hair (she still does). And if Eva disapproved of the pastor’s church sermon, she’d leave, wait outside until the end of mass so she could give him a what for. I imagine Eva with her arms folded tight against her chest, pacing back and forth, her sneakers slapping against the pavement, sighing with impatience. So when pastor Zietor first met Eva and said, “Oh, you’re the infamous Mrs. Cronin,” he got an earful: “You just insulted me,” she said.

Eva also had the chutzpah to leave the Catholic Church. After a few years as a rector for Crusillo in Christianity, an apostolic movement with a focus on personal spiritual development, she started an ecumenical offshoot of the movement, offering the Eucharist to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But many of the priests with whom she associated wouldn’t have anything to do with sharing the body of Christ with so-called non-believers. So Eva wouldn’t have anything to do with the Catholic Church. She, and her family, left the Church, and never returned.

Nothing kept Eva from getting out of the house to help her community, even if it meant knocking on strangers’ doors, as she did when she volunteered for the Census Bureau in the 1970’s. Not only did she extend herself outside of her home, she welcomed people into her home: friends of the kids, exchange students, business associates of Tom’s, even an occasional criminal suspect and runaway.

But over the past few years, something has changed in Eva, something inside of her. She stopped driving a few years ago due to worsening macula degeneration. But she doesn’t seem to miss it, at least she doesn’t reminisce about driving. Fortunately, she has family to drive her places, like to the doctor and the grocery store. And she has kept herself busy by crocheting Afghans and hats, a talent that goes back decades. So she doesn’t need her eyes to tell her how to crochet the perfect stitch – those stitches are knotted in her memory. But she no longer cooks Ukranian dishes familiar to her childhood for Sunday family gatherings, like halushki and perogies.  “I don’t feel like it,” she says. “I don’t know what to cook for Tom anymore. He doesn’t eat.” And she no longer kneads dough, bakes the dozens of Christmas cookies days in advance of Christmas like she used to. No more snowballs, lemon oat lacies, or toffee squares. She leaves the house if she needs to go to the doctor, or when her husband or one of her children begs her to join them for lunch. She double locks the door even when she’s home with others. And she has stopped taking the trash out to the dumpster, a couple of hundred yards away, because she got lost once while making her way back to the apartment. Luckily, a neighbor noticed Eva’s panic stricken face and offered to help her find her way home.

What has happened to the fearless, outgoing Eva we once knew? Is it merely a matter of aging? Perhaps our DNA undergoes some seismic shift as we age, exposing all the fear and depression we’ve cleverly hidden for so long.

Still, Eva will open the door, that is, after she asks, “Who’s there?” When she hears a familiar voice, she’ll turn the top lock then the bottom one to the right. When you hear the click, click from the other side, then see her broad smile as she peeks her head around the door, you know Eva is relieved to see that it is someone she can truly trust.

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