The Wake-Up Call That Comes With Aging Parents by Jean Marie Keenan-Johnston

My mother’s week-long hospital stay ended today. She was actually hospitalized a few days past a week, but I’m sure she felt like eternity had arrived on Day 2 of her stay. I know from talking to her and hearing about different things she said to the nursing staff when she felt secure enough to open up that she was having a very difficult time without my father. He passed just last September, so we all felt like it was too soon for any of us to have to go through such worry and turmoil. But I know it was incredibly hard for her to go through such a scary hospital stay without my father there to support her. Besides worrying about my mother as I watched her in such pain and doing my best to encourage her to cooperate despite the discomfort they were causing in order to try to help her, the whole experience brought forth so many sad memories and worries about my mom and my own future that I’ve had since my dad passed.

My grandmother lived for about six years (if I remember correctly) after my grandfather passed. During the last year and a half of her life, her health declined enough that she needed constant care as she was confined to a hospital bed most of the day. I had just turned 27 when she died. The year and a half before that, I watched my mother take turns with her two sisters spending assigned days every week staying over with her. After only a few months, my siblings and I heard repeatedly how she wanted different for her children. Rather than hearing her complain, something I knew I would never hear come from my mother no matter how exhausted this schedule made her, she told us on almost a weekly basis that her children would not have to be responsible for this kind of situation with a parent. My dad’s father had been in a nursing home because his weight made it impossible for my little aunt and mother to help him after both legs were amputated at the knee, so we didn’t experience this as young children while he was alive, but my mother made it clear to us in adulthood that she and my father would make any arrangement necessary to not be a “burden” to their children. At the time, that generosity, for lack of a better term, wasn’t something that I wanted to focus on. As responsible as I’ve always been, I never wanted to really participate in any discussion that focused on either parent’s death. At 27, I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have to be.

Now at 41, I have to be. And it’s not easy at all.

When my father died, I wish I had been given some warning about what was coming. I don’t mean I needed a heads up about the tremendous sorrow I would feel. That I expected. What I felt overwhelmed by was the seemingly-never ending to-do list that needed to be accomplished in a week’s time. I had no idea of all the appointments that had to take place. Funeral director, burial site (do you call him attendant?), insurance agent, visit the hospital for my father’s belongings, insurance agent a second time…the list went on. I always thought life insurance was something a person got to help with expenses when they passed, but nobody told me that the funds from the claim never come in time to cover burial expenses. And when I saw how expensive even a “modest” funeral and luncheon was, I started saying Hail Mary’s right then, knowing that God forbid my husband pass tomorrow, we would definitely be unprepared. I started wondering to myself, “How many others in this country would be in the same situation?” When I sat with my mother day after day going through the creditors my father took care of every month, I hurt for her and myself by how many times we had to repeat to people we didn’t even know, my father just passed. And as weeks passed and I checked in with her often, I heard during every phone call just how much the paperwork trail followed her as the days passed. The funeral was more and more behind us, but the paperwork his death left behind didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Now this hospitalization of my mother’s brings up new fears. I want her to have as much happiness as she’s able to find in these years without my father. I know her health is going to be an obstacle we’ll need to help her with – she has arthritis that’s getting pretty bad – and retaining her independence will be a big part of that. Since my dad died I started to worry…will we ever have to approach my mother about giving up driving? Will we have to move her into a facility like she talked so much about when she decided she didn’t want us “burdened” by her or will we be able to convince her being with one of us is a better situation? How will I be able to keep up with children, an aging parent and my own health condition that’s so limiting, fibromyalgia?

This kind of thinking can’t be helped I guess. We always wonder about the unknown, and even the most positive of us will worry a bit more when a loved one dies and then serious health conditions show up rather quickly in another loved one before you can even come up for air. So I don’t feel like I’m being a negative person. In the coming months, now that my mother is home again, I will visit her often and encourage her to take care of herself in any way I can. We’re all missing Daddy, but yet again we’ve come together and seen each other through a difficult time. What better way to honor my father than for his children to care for our mother in the way he would?

  1. 6 Responses to “The Wake-Up Call That Comes With Aging Parents by Jean Marie Keenan-Johnston”

  2. Jean Marie, how poignant this piece is. It brought tears for me as I can identify with what you are going through. I am a 47 year old mum, looking after my five year old son and my eighty year old mother. She is in and out of hospital and although she has a positive attitude and friends, she is often lonely and scared. My father passed on in 2001 and she is losing friends. We are experiencing much of what you describe here. We are scared of the problems that old age and ill health are throwing up but we are handling it day by day and grabbing any opportunities to make memories and enjoy the rest I our time together. It’s hard to see those we love deteriorate….and all that entails..

    By Claire on Mar 11, 2013

  3. Claire, I will continue to keep you in my thoughts and send lots of positive energy your way to help you through this! I’ve talked to my mother often this past week…nearly every day. (I try to keep from calling every day because I don’t want her to think I’m hovering – I didn’t call her every day before this happened. There were a few days in between calls some weeks. – and I’m sure if I change that pattern much she’s going to know I’m worrying about her a LOT, something she really doesn’t want from any of us) Every time I don’t hear excellent news of progress I get scared all over again. I already have very full hands. My two children show signs every day of worrying about losing a loved one…between my cancer history and my father’s cancer and passing, they’ve been through a lot in just three and five years. And as worried and scared as my mother’s aging makes me for just myself as her daughter, the mother in me is even MORE intensely worried about what I’ll have on my hands if she’s not with us for many more years to come. I know that must sound incredibly selfish…I hope all the moms out there read this for what it is, the desire to have my daughters be blessed with the healing and adjustment time as well as some years to mature so they can be given the chance to grieve in a healthy way, healthier than they’ve had to deal so far. Stay strong and take good care of yourself! I apologize for the tears my writing brought you, but it’s been a good experience for me to know others can relate…even though I never wish pain on anyone. When it comes down to it, there really is NO easy way to go through anything like this when it’s somebody we love, and when it’s a parent, it’s a hundred times harder.

    By jean on Mar 17, 2013

  4. I feel for you so much Jean Marie. Several weeks before my Father passed (my mother had died when I was 19), a good friend advised I look into using my fathers funds to prepare for his funeral, from casket to flowers to luncheon. Because I didn’t know when to expect his demise, I arranged everything possible…including flowers…and when the news came unexpectantly weeks later, all I had to do was have my husband call all of the pre-arranged places and nothing was left for me to do but to grieve my loss.

    I feel like I want to do that for myself so that my son is not burdened by all of the decisions that need to be made at the last moment. I’m contemplating checking out burial plots, choosing and paying for my casket, and making a detailed list of my funeral wishes for the day of my own demise. I DON’T want to be a burden on my son. So if I can take care of these essentials now, it is less to worry about monetarily as well as emotionally for him, then.

    I think I’m going to wait until I turn 50 first though…

    By Cara Potapshyn Meyers on Mar 12, 2013

  5. How surreal it must feel to feel like you have to do that, isn’t it? We started thinking early about caregivers for our girls in case something happened, but it wasn’t as a result of coming to terms with our mortality. We had several very nasty experiences with my husband’s family, and I was determined to not have them have any chance of getting custody of my daughters if we passed together. Even with my cancer diagnosis, that’s about all the thought I’ve put into it. With my fibromyalgia and then the cancer added to the day to day responsibilities of raising children, pretty much on my own many days because my husband is trying to handle a career with his degenerative disc disease, I haven’t had the time (or energy some days) to think that far ahead. Like you, I think as I approach 50 I’ll force my husband to start putting some plans into motion. He’ll hit that milestone four years sooner than I will.

    By jean on Mar 17, 2013

  6. I understand how you feel. I lost my mom over 10 years ago…she didn’t live to see me become a mom….and my dad is now 94, and lives fulltime with an aide…and I handle all his affairs. He suffered two strokes a year ago, and his communication is now very poor. It’s heartbreaking, given that he was always a gregarious man.

    As moms with young kids, and older parents, it’s not easy. And, yes, it’s hugely sad to see them age…and it makes us all the more aware of the passage of time and uncertainty of the future. But, at the same time, it can help you treasure the time you do have with them and to know in your heart that you’re as fully present as you can be.

    Having things well in place for your son with regard to your affairs, if that brings you peace of mind, is a smart idea. And, having a good will is important. I’m always amazed if I meet a parent who doesn’t have one.

    By Robin Gorman Newman on Mar 13, 2013

  7. Thank you, ladies, for your replies! It always helps to know we’re not alone in such worrisome matters. Parenting is a tough enough job as it is, but when life has to interject here and there, there are days when you just wonder silently to yourself “How am I going to get through to tomorrow?” Knowing others relate helps immensely to that end! I am sorry for each of your losses and hope for continued strength along your own journeys with your children and aging parents. Have a wonderful week!

    By jean on Mar 17, 2013