Skip to main content

Living in (Her) 90's


Last night, I came home after an intense couple of days. Spoiler: I’m fine, my mom’s fine, no need to read further unless you want to share in some processing about aging and life in general.

I have been given an amazing gift that I never take for granted. My mom is 90, healthy “for her age,” sharp, and at the moment, living independently in her own home. A few years ago, she and my father moved from a state away to be 15 minutes from my house. My siblings supported the move, which I’m grateful for. I am 16 and 12 years younger than each of them and have always been a bit jealous that in the end, they would have had that many more years with our parents than I. So I figure I’m getting more “quality of time” now.

The pandemic made things a bit harder, of course. All efforts were on keeping Madame safe, so no one went in her house, and she didn’t come into ours. I met her for our thrice-weekly walks on her sidewalk, and we’d visit in her backyard. My sister, who lives about an hour away, would come for short visits (no using her bathroom!) in her backyard, and when it was cold, they sat, masked, in my mom’s garage. My brother once drove straight through from Missouri to stay in a motel and come over for backyard visits. Longer visits were coordinated with 2 week windows of scrupulous quarantining on both sides. I probably don’t have to tell you – you’ve done similar with your family.

But we made it through and are all vaccinated. Madame and I revel in being in each other’s homes again, grandkids (all vaxxed) soak up time with her. She and I have begun slowly making our way out into the world, masked, but going in stores and such.

And then, Thursday, I got a call from my 16 year old who had spent the night with Madame. “She said to tell you she’s confused and can’t understand things.” I asked if she could smile with both sides of her mouth (she could), then jumped into the car. Picked her up and we shot over to the ER near her house, the ER we have visited at least 4 or 5 times this past year for a fall (tip: sit down before pulling a tshirt over your head), high blood pressure, those kinds of things.

They ran her through the tests – CT, blood, ekg – to see if she was having a stroke or heart event. The doctor explained it was most likely a TIA and advised her as to the set of tests she would need to have over the next couple of weeks, or, we could go to a full-service hospital and get them all done at once. Which would also be a little safer, as she’d be under their observation. Mom is always one for efficiency, so she chose the latter.

(Insert boring but stressful details involving my dear sister-in-law who was already on her way for a pre-scheduled visit thankfully, parking lot exchanges of checkbooks and cell chargers, gripes about medical personnel not communicating well, a million texts between family members, my spouse racing back from being out of town, and 2 pugs. Life is messy.) The hospital was not fun, no surprise. We got through it. There were arguments about me staying with her (Madame does not live up to the title I have jokingly given her – she hates being treated like a queen and despairs at being a burden.) I work very hard to make sure that we honor her right to make her own decisions, literally turning my head down when doctors come into a room so they talk to her, not me, but as I explained to her, me deciding to stay with her was in my dance space and unless she kicked me out, I was staying. She admitted to being grateful, especially when her night nurse turned out to have a strong Russian accent, and that combined with a mask was just beyond Madame’s ability to comprehend her speech, so she appreciated me serving as interpreter.

Some notes specifically about “when someone you love, maybe-but-they-can’t-tell-and-probably-didn’t” have a stroke: if the person was on high blood pressure meds, they will stop that, as the high blood pressure could actually be helpful at moving a clot. And they will come in every 4 hours not only to take vitals, but also to lead the patient through a series of tests involving describing what they see in a picture, speaking certain words, lifting up legs and arms, touching nose, answering questions, etc. Even at 4 in the morning, they will do this. “I’m not sure my mom could do that at 4 in the morning even on a good day,” I said doubtfully, but Madame succeeded, albeit with a rather annoyed tone of voice. She has never been a morning person, a trait shared with her youngest daughter.

Ageism is an issue starting much younger than she, but let me tell, the ageism on a 90-year-old is pervasive and infantilizing. Medical professional after medical professional would come into her room, commenting with amazement at how good she looked! And she still lived alone??? She was independent???

“What is that like, on your side, receiving those ‘compliments’?” I asked her.

Madame doesn’t roll her eyes, I’m not sure if she knows how to, but she communicates the feeling with a simple direct look.

(Please do not treat our elders like freaks of nature because they’re still living their lives and looking good while doing it.)

We finally got the golden ticket to go home, hopped (okay, carefully climbed) into my pickup, and took a quaint backwoods trip home, with Madame trying to direct me, and me insisting that we “trust the machines, Mom!” aka follow my GPS, which kindly avoided traffic and gave us an enjoyable hill country drive. She admitted “the machine” did a good job.

I left her in the capable care of my dear sister-in-law and the two pugs. As I said goodbye, she repeated her constant refrain of the two days, that I just couldn’t know how much she appreciated me.

In one of those moments back at the hospital, when she was feeling frustrated and a little low, I tried to explain. “I guess this is just the price we’ll pay for you being 90 – but it sure is worth it, at least to me.” All of this is new to both of us. My dad died 5 years ago, and her own mother died in her 60s. Neither of us has experience, firsthand or secondhand, of going through one’s 90s. We are, each in our own way, going through it together, figuring it out together. With every new experience, we debrief together afterwards about what we’ve learned. (Key learnings from this episode: keep a small “go bag” with toiletries for her and me, snacks, and a cell charger. Insist on better communication from doctors. Insist that when an ER doctor agrees to a plan, that the nurse in charge come into the room so that everyone is on the same page.)

And BY GOD, you’d better believe this is worth it. I know so many people who lost beloved parents far younger who would give anything to have this. A few times a year, dealing with a medical event in exchange for getting to share in the life of a loved one who is still enjoying life? Pretty slick deal, if you ask me.

She’s the only one who can decide if it’s worth it to her. We talk often about what it’ll be like when the bad days outnumber the good. She’s still in the driver’s seat and her kids will never ask her to suffer for us. But for now, she’s choosing to keep up our walks, meeting twice a week with a physical therapist (“and doing those mmph! exercises”), eating her vegetables, taking her meds.

Because living is worth it.


Popular posts from this blog

Don't Trust Your Instincts, or, "Well-Meaning People Can Exacerbate Big Problems"

My evangelical friends talk about being "convicted." That moment when you hear or read a message and like an arrow, it dives into your heart, and you know that you have been guilty, and you have some growing to do. At the very beginning of my learning about Bowen systems theory, the professor was laying out the basic idea: that we all feel anxiety, and when we do, we act (often in unhealthy ways) in order to lessen our anxiety. And in an unhealthy system with emotionally immature people -- a family, a business, a church -- one person's anxiety can trigger the anxiety of others. Here's a great primer on that. Really great. Like, watch it 20 times in a row. Or every morning as you drink your coffee. (I'm not kidding. I think your life would be better. Consider it a spiritual practice.) So back to my conviction moment. The professor went on to talk about how when we see someone who is "vibrating" with anxiety, our instinct is often to rush over,

The Most Controversial Thing I'll Write All Year

Back when you were a kid, you learned a lesson. It was wrong. And it's time for you to unlearn it. You learned that you were responsible for other people's feelings. Not that you should care about other people's feelings. (You should.) Not just that you should be sensitive to other people's feelings. (You should.) But you were taught that you were actually responsible for other people's feelings. It happens in almost all homes, even the loving ones. In abusive homes, it's more blatant. If Dad is unhappy, you get hit. So you learn that it is actually your responsibility to keep him happy, or there would be consequences. But even in non-abusive homes, it happened. If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.  You are not responsible for other people's feelings. That's their job. And in fact, you are crossing their boundary if you try to control their feelings. They get to decide how they feel about something, not you. They may decide that you

Me and My Collar

You may run into me on a Friday, in my neighborhood, so it's time I let you know what you might see. When I was doing my required unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), my supervisor suggested that any of us who came from traditions where a clerical collar was an option, take one "collar week," to see how we were treated, as opposed to wearing regular professional clothes. After a couple of days, I joked to the Catholic priest, "How do you manage the power?" In regular clothes, I would walk into a patient's room, and it would take about 5 or so minutes of introductions and pleasantries before we could really get down to talking about their feelings, their fears, the deep stuff. With most people, as soon as that clerical collar walked in the room, with me attached, they began pouring out all the heavy stuff they were carrying. I was riding the bus back and forth every day, and though not quite so dramatic, the collar effect was alive there, to