My parents live in assisted living half way across the country. Now in their 90s, they were healthy and independent until two years ago. While they both have their mental capacities, physical issues have continued to challenge them. My father has severe hearing loss that he has been dealing with for over 50 years. He heavily relied on his vision to compensate for his hearing loss. Now he has vision in only one eye and over the past year has developed macular degeneration in that eye. He also requires his vision to assist with balance when walking. My stepmother has macular degeneration. A stroke limits her mobility. My father provides her mobility, and her wheelchair assists his balance.
The past month they have concluded that they can no longer use the internet, because they can no longer see to maneuver through it. My father decided at 97 to use his father’s cane to “signal to other people that I am not steady on my feet.”
Even with their vision difficulties they are both voracious Kindle readers. No longer using the computer means they can no longer download books.
I just returned from a longer than usual visit with them. This visit was more for me than for them. I am skittish about people dying, and I want to do better. I was able to do what was necessary for my mother when she was dying, and I was an adolescent, but I could not be emotionally connected with her. It was all too much.
I am challenging myself to be emotionally connected with my parents as they are in later stages of aging, still with vigor yet with more actual challenges than they have ever faced. My father, 97 is the communicator, and my stepmother has the incisive memory, still doing their taxes this year at 92 with only a bit of help seeing.
When I am with them, I typically get caught up in being anxiously sensitive to what they might need and being in an automatic “helping” mode. This heightened alertness eventually wears me out, and I need to nap more. In addition, I think that my anxious “helping” mode might actually undermine my parent’s functioning!
To manage myself, I decided to be curious about what it takes to adapt to real changes in the aging body, the senses and the mind. I brought my video camera to be more observant and to document the wisdom.
Dad described what losing vision is like. He is losing his ability to be connected to people. He cannot identify individuals or see expressions in contrast to once being a skillful group facilitator and relationship savvy. With his hearing already compromised, losing vision is increasing isolation.
When the Kindle books ran out, my stepmother sleeps rather than engaging her mind.
People look at my stepmother and do not see or relate to the mind that is still there since her expression looks flat since her stroke.
Dad talked about having people drive them to church. He described a continuum. Some people are oblivious to their actual needs and others are so “helpful” that is it annoying and gets in the way. They are hesitant to ask for help.
Being at a distance can be anxiety producing. The more effectively the family and staff work together, the better for my parents. I could see that what I was learning could be a bridge to the assisted living staff. I asked questions of my parents – “how do you ask for assistance and maintain your self?” “How can you coach others to assist you in necessary ways?” I am also talking with staff about ways to support my parents in ways they may not be aware, such as their low-vision lifestyle as well as their hesitation to ask for assistance.
The challenge for me is to stay present and factually based and not let my anxious worry about their physical deterioration and dying push me to anxious helpfulness or chase me away.
On this trip at least…and I did not need a nap!