Seeing mortality through your parents' eyes

Tuesday , April 17, 2018 - 4:00 AM

D. LOUISE BROWN, special to the Standard-Examiner

Growing older is scary.

Helping a parent who is growing older is even scarier. The sense of responsibility attached to caring for, sometimes keeping alive the person who cared for you and kept you alive is worlds different from the responsibility of taking care of children as they age.

Ailing, aging parents face an unfamiliar array of health challenges, many stemming from just wearing out. For caretaking children, moments of guilt billow up from the realization that Mom carrying you and your siblings inside of her and then on her hip and then in her worried mind and always in her heart was bound to translate into some wear and tear, physically, mentally and emotionally. Probably spiritually too.

We’d prefer to ignore that because it’s easier to believe we can live forever if our parents live forever — a childhood belief that diminishes as they age. When their health begins to fail, we catch unsettling glimpses of our own mortality — especially when we start suffering the same ailments plaguing them. Dad’s colon cancer, Mom’s bad back, Grandpa’s arthritis—they’re as legitimate inheritances as great-grandma’s china. We don’t get to choose what we inherit. But we do get to choose how we shore up our parents when they’re ailing.

My brother and I take Mom to her doctor’s appointment because she can’t remember details about her health history any more. She’s kind of let go of that burdensome responsibility, relieved she has adult kids to take care of it for her. So he and I field questions from the doctor (a surgeon), after patiently giving Mom time to answer — if she can. As in, (from the doctor), “So, did this shoulder problem start with a fall?”

Mom: “No, I don’t think so.”

My brother: “Well, Mom, actually, it did. Remember when you tried to pull your garbage can in from the curb (even though we beg you not to) and fell and hit your shoulder on the cement?”

Mom: “Oh, yes. That’s right.”

She’s endured months of steroid shots, physical therapy, pain meds — the works. Today her shoulder is swollen, warm to the touch, bruising a different color than last week — and more painful than ever. So this doctor sets a surgery date. We’re relieved for her. Then he carefully explains that anesthesia can increase the rate of the onset of dementia, and although Mom hasn’t been diagnosed, the signs are drifting in — another inheritance from her mother, one we’ll likely inherit from her. And now we’re also afraid for her — even as we resign to the fact that given the pain she’s in, Mom has no choice but to go ahead with the surgery, despite the risk. A whole new set of concerns settle in on us. A whole new set of questions arise about how we’ll care for her in this next complication of aging.

The doctor is cheerfully optimistic. He shows her a plastic and metal model of the shoulder prosthesis he’ll insert into her body. She’s a little intimidated (who wouldn’t be?), but he assures her she’ll be fine.

We fill out papers, she has blood work and an EKG done, and then we take her to lunch. The conversation moves away from surgery — we want to talk about something else, anything else. Mom, a widow for 15 years now, lives alone. She’ll have enough hours to fret later. For now she just wants to eat a pot pie, talk about her grandkids, and enjoy the company.

Sitting with her, a little uncomfortable that we’ve made life-changing, possibly life-threatening decisions with her today, I realize that at some future date, my children will likely sit with me in an office discussing my back or colon or arthritis with a doctor who will look even younger to me than did the youngster/doctor we talked with today.

Someday my children will shift into the role of being my parents, just as my brother and I have with Mom. The stronger members of the pack take care of the weaker ones. Through the course of her years, Mom has evolved from being the protector to one needing protection. Along with a deep sense of responsibility, I feel an equally deep sense of gratitude. This is how I can begin to repay the one who gave her everything to me.

It’s a start.

D. Louise Brown lives in Layton. She writes a biweekly column for the Standard-Examiner.

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