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.