I’m at the age where many of my friends are taking care of aging parents. The stories all sound quite similar. As I reflect back to my mother’s last days, some of the conversations I had with her make a bit more sense now.
Two years before my mother’s death, she asked me to find an assisted living facility near my home because my father was no longer able to take care of her. During her stay there, she shared with me that her life was not fulfilling any more. She could no longer drive and her physician would not approve her as a candidate for hip replacement surgery. She was in a lot of pain, was no longer able to do much for herself and had no hope that she would get any better. Her sister also had some health problems and my mother informed me that she “wanted to go first.”
No matter how incapacitated your parents are, those words are hard to hear.
Mother told me about a recurring dream she had where my grandmother would appear at the foot of her bed. She would ask me if I thought that was an omen that her time was running short. I wasn’t comfortable talking about that either so never explored her thoughts or wishes behind it.
After about six weeks in assisted living, Mom asked me to take her back home.
Within 3 or 4 weeks of returning to their house, my mother had emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder. She had to be resuscitated during that operation and never fully recovered. The surgeon insisted on implanting a pacemaker so that would not happen again. I felt uneasy about that request because I felt the recommendation was more for the protection of the medical staff than for my mother.
I could have blamed the surgeon for not taking more precautions towards an 85-year-old woman. I could have expressed anger towards the staff at the rehabilitation center for drugging my mother so much that she had no personality at all. Instead of expending our energy complaining about the injustice that had been done, we made our point through our actions. We brought her back home and did all we could to make her comfortable during those final months.
Knowing what I know now about how powerful our thoughts can be, I can’t help but wonder if Mom was willing her body to die. Though I didn’t want to hear it, she tried to warn me that her mother was calling her to leave this life. Would she have preferred that they not resuscitate her? As her daughter, I was grateful they did because that gave me several more months to accept that her time was soon ending.
I thought about the phenomenon when couples die within months of each other. Once the first one passes away, the other has lost the will to live and quickly follows suit. I could understand how difficult it would be to exist when your spouse is no longer alive, you are no longer able to take care of yourself and you are not able to do the things that previously brought meaning to your life.
I had been in the habit of calling my parents every evening because I knew they looked forward to it. Even when mother could no longer talk, I felt that she understood what I was saying to her. I remember the night before she died when I told her that I could sense she was frustrated because she could not respond back to me. She began crying uncontrollably. That touched my heart and the next day she was gone.
When she died, I was happy for her because the pain was over and for me because I had done all I could to make her comfortable.
For those of you involved as caregivers for your aging parents, remember that the greatest gift you can give is to spend quality time with them. I don’t want to deny the importance that medical staff need to be made aware when they’ve made an error. Be an advocate for your family, but make sure you have plenty of energy left over to spend time with them and to keep them comfortable. In the end, YOU will feel much better and will be better able to accept your loss. Then, celebrate the good memories about when you were able to enjoy each other!