People sometimes talk about aging as if the process is invariably gradual and graceful. You know how it goes – Mum gets a little slower every Christmas and eventually stops making the pav. Dad’s hearing is getting worse – when you drop over you notice the TV is louder than it was last time.
It’s sad when independence and ability slips away little by little, but with love and patience, it becomes just another part of life.
But it doesn’t always happen like that.
Before January last year, my seventy-something parents were living a big life. Dad was a keen (and good) tennis player who winced at any suggestion of switching to golf or God forbid, lawn bowls. He was officially retired but continued to sit on two boards. He didn’t attend church but volunteered at the church’s charity group because he liked the people there. Mum swam every day, looked after her youngest grandchild every Friday and had a small, tight group of friends.
Interestingly, Mum and Dad lived their lives almost independently of each other, but were still very much a couple. They enjoyed dining out and travelling together – overseas at least once a year, and interstate every few months. Often, my sisters and I would need to call each other to check on our parents’ whereabouts, ‘Is this the week they were going to Vietnam or is it next week?’
The very mention of downsizing or slowing down was an anathema, especially to Dad. So we didn’t mention it and it wasn’t issue. Until of course it was.
On day two of their annual trip to Melbourne to watch the Australian Open, Dad suffered a stroke, leaving him without the use of his right arm and speaking became very difficult. Then exactly one month later, while Dad was still in hospital, Mum slipped and fell while she was cleaning the pool, breaking her left ankle in three places.
It felt like overnight our independent parents became dependent, largely on us, and no one was prepared for it. For the first time since we were teenagers, my sisters and I fought – serious slam-down-the-phone fighting. About what needed to be done, who should do it, who should discuss it with Mum and Dad. Then there was money – they had plenty but Dad was blowed if he’d spend it on someone cleaning the pool. So I was doing it – which I didn’t mind, except it meant my own laundry was piling up at home. Time became our family currency, ‘If you can do their shopping today, I can get Mum to the doctor on Tuesday.’
It was clear our parents needed help if they were to stay at home. And perhaps selfishly, we needed them to have help. But as big-living boomers, they were hard-wired to reject it. And as working parents of young families (and in the case of my sister, a part-time carer for her mother-in-law) we were ill-equipped to find the support not only that they needed but that they’d accept. Our friends found it hard to understand – everyone thought of our parents as the fabulous, funny, generous people they are, so it made us feel disloyal if we spoke of our frustrations. And there was a sense of loss. Our parents’ independence was a big part of what made them them.
A year and a half later, the dust has settled and the new normal is working, but the sails are constantly being trimmed. What’s needed this month is different to what was important last month. Mum’s back swimming, Dad’s speech is improving, and my sisters and I are still talking, but mostly the conversation’s about what might be needed next month.
‘I’m a writer by profession as well as a wife, friend, mother and daughter. I’m surprised and unprepared for the fact that the ‘daughter’ part of that resume is becoming the dominant one as I approach fifty. As I was growing up there were all sorts of articles and discussions and TV shows about building a career and raising a family but nothing at all about what happens when your parents, perhaps suddenly, need your care when you’re still up to your ears in career and kids. I suspect in the next decade we might see a Netflix drama (or even a comedy?) called ‘Sandwich’, but until then, I’ll write my thoughts for Five Good Friends. Because thinking leads to talking and talking means we’re not alone.’
* A pseudonym to protect this family’s privacy. The story is authentic.