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Sheila Stoll: Sometimes age trumps independence

My family recently came to visit. I knew that along with a heartfelt desire to have a good time together, there was another reason for their visit. I am now the oldest member of the family — and they were doing the obligatory status check.

A few years ago my brothers and I were faced with my mother's increasing incapacity. She lived alone in a big house, and after my husband died in 1994, I spent increasingly long periods of time with her, which was a good arrangement for both of us in that we were both alone and we got along very well. My brothers had families and jobs thousands of miles away from where our mother lived. I had no material ties to my home in Central Florida, no job, no husband and no other family nearby. As time went by, it was clear that although she was entirely competent mentally and physically, everyday chores were becoming increasingly difficult. I was able to take up the slack. My two brothers came to visit and help out when they could.

Then in 1998 I met and married Darling Husband. Suddenly I had a life again. We planned to go away in the summer, partly because DH has property and family in his homeland of Switzerland. Of course my mother encouraged us to go and enjoy, but I was worried about leaving her alone for the hottest months; her neighbors would go back to homes in the cooler Midwest. She would be alone. Could — or should — she drive? What if she fell? Would she see her doctors when she needed to? She had spent summers with my brothers in the Midwest for a number of years. She had driven herself in her Mustang convertible and always had a good time. Could she still do that? I consulted my brothers. The conclusion we arrived at was, not so much.

We had weighty discussions about whether or not she should move to an assisted living facility as neither brother had enough room to give her a permanent room of her own. We visited a number of facilities and it became clear that it would be an ordeal and certainly not what she would choose for herself if there were any viable alternatives. She knew that we were all worried. How could she not know? As a temporary measure, she flew to the Midwest and one of my brothers set up a bed in what was really his wife's study. She needed surgery a month later and she didn't survive.

Now, when my children and younger brother visit, I know they are all looking carefully to assess our capabilities. They know that DH is now 80, has a heart condition and after-market parts installed, and that he's a decade older than me. They also know I'm a bit impaired. They check to see how things are going with us. So, naturally, I put on a tour-de-force performance. I had prepared meals in advance and effortlessly served up dinner for a dozen people several nights in a row. The house was pretty clean. The plants were watered and thriving, and I was, in my own eyes, still Super Mom. But I know well that they are in the early stages of thinking about what to do about me. After all, it's inevitable that things will change and probably not for the better.

And yet I am so fortunate: How lucky I am to have DH! We take care of each other. And I have a loving family concerned about my well-being now and in the future.

We have a neighbor who is not nearly so lucky. She is alone and always has been. An independent woman without close family, she has always gone her own way, happy to make her own choices and support herself and pleased to never have had to depend on others.

She has been friendly, busy and apparently fulfilled. She's older than both of us. We have always chatted in the parking lot and on occasions when our paths have crossed. She was recently told that she has macular degeneration, which will result in blindness. She is afraid. I would be too. She owns her condo and likes her independence, but she recently wrecked her car. Happily she was not injured and no one else was hurt. But now she can no longer drive and will increasingly have to depend on others. There is no one she is close to who can help or advise her.

She arrives at our door distraught. We can take care of each other but we can't take care of Ginny, too. She never thought about being old, a potentially fatal mistake. We know we're lucky, but we don't have any answers for her.

Sheila Stoll is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her at PMB No. 309, 7904 E Chaparral Road, No. 110, Scottsdale, AZ 85250.

Sheila Stoll: Sometimes age trumps independence 05/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 24, 2010 2:22pm]
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