It was just going to be a quick visit. We didn’t want to impose but felt it was necessary and important. After all, you don’t turn 90 years old every day. But as soon as we walked in the door, we immediately knew: their life had dramatically changed—and it would never be the same again for them…or us.
I have always loved bragging to people how my in-laws are the ripe old age of 93 and 90 and don’t look or act a day past 85. We don’t see them very often as we live in different states (we are in California; they are in Utah). But we keep in touch by phone and try to plan regular visits. So when we knew we would be in Idaho for our son-in-law’s college graduation, I suggested we “stop by” my in-laws on our drive home. Just two nights. A quick visit. Make a birthday dinner. No big deal — so we thought.
On the way down from Idaho, we checked in a couple of times to keep my in laws abreast of our travels and when they could expect us. Both my husband and I noticed that the tone in my mother-in-law’s voice was not normal. Something was definitely up. When we arrived, it was immediately obvious that my mother-in-law had lost a lot of weight and was struggling. My father-in-law was not that great either. He was all anxious and out of sorts– like a 7 year old and a puppy combined. We cut the small talk and went straight to the details. My mother-in-law had received a steroid epidural for a reoccurring back problem earlier in the week that had failed. In fact, she was actually worse. Her sciatic nerve had become inflamed, greatly inhibiting her ability to walk. Because she was in so much pain, she had no motivation to make food and her appetite had faded. She had no energy. My father-in-law, on the other hand, was physically OK but was suffering from common complications of dementia. This caused added stress and complicated my mother-in-law’s recovery.
We spent the next day working on meeting their needs. We cooked and coaxed them to eat. My husband spent time with his father, offering him stability. This allowed my mother-in-law a chance to rest (she took three naps that day!!) We showed her how to make a proper ice pack and added some medicine to relieve her pain. Later that night, my mother-in-law confided in me how difficult things had suddenly become. She was in constant pain. She had to keep constant vigil on my father-in-law because he was so forgetful. Her home – once the source of her joy – was now such a burden. She could no longer cook or clean. She had reached her limit and could see no way out. She wanted to give up. She cried. I assured her we would find a way to help while at the same time I had no idea how we were going to do that.
We were supposed to go home the next morning. My in-laws had a bad night and bless her heart, my mother-in-law slept in a chair from 4:00 a.m. on to make sure she could talk to us before we left. She pleaded with us, “Please don’t leave me. I can’t handle this on my own.” My husband had to get back to work, but my schedule was such that I could stay a few extra days. She was so relieved. But I was so nervous. Of course, we knew they were old but since we aren’t around them all of the time, in our mind’s eye, they were the kind of old from five years ago: still able to do everything on their own without any bother to our lifestyle. No longer would that be the case. It was time to come to terms that their new limitations would be interfering with our neatly packaged world. Difficult decisions had to be made. No more ignoring for anyone.
For three days, I cooked and cleaned, did laundry and offered moral support. I monitored their medications (they take a ton!) and made contact with their doctors which meant I had to be added to their HIPA paperwork. I shared their condition with support people (neighbors, church leaders) and gave them my contact information. And most importantly, I got the ball rolling for finding in-home care. It isn’t going to be cheap (my husband is splitting the month to month cost with his three brothers) but everyone agreed that it will buy a little more quality of life for them to be able to stay in their own home as their sunset approaches.
You talk about it. You sort of plan for it. You think you are ready for it. But in actuality, you are never ready for it. And when that time comes, you think about it a million times a day and you walk around with a constant lump in your throat– and in your heart. An ending is approaching on the other side of life. Yuck.
Have you had to come to terms with your parents’ end of life issues? How are you handling it?