Friday, February 24, 2012

Growing Old

What struck me most upon returning home from Nova Scotia were the contrasts. The day I had left behind in Halifax was brilliantly sunny and warm, whereas the early evening in the Toronto, when I walked out of the airport terminal, was overcast and miserably cold. 

As I rolled out of bed at 5am the next morning, and my feet hit the cold, wooden floor, I thought about the differences again, this time between households. I looked across the bedroom at the mess of my half unpacked suitcase, and thought of the spotless, white interior of my sister-in-laws house, where I had been billeted during my stay. Where were those plush carpets when my cold toes really needed them? 

I thought too about the dark gloom of my in-laws living room, where the curtains are always drawn. (My mother-in-law, who is battling Alzheimer's, finds bright light hard on her eyes.) 

And then, I remembered the busy chaos of my mother's house, where my sister and her two teenage children had stayed. Sadly, it had turned out that the restless energy of a 14 year old boy, the distress caused by her two visiting daughters messing about in her kitchen and the simple change in routine had been really hard for my almost 90 year old mother to bear. We did our level best to make it easy on her, but one tumultuous evening in particular, she burst into tears and could not find comfort, even in my father's arms.

Have you had to come to terms with aging or ailing parents yet? It is a tough and heartbreaking experience, I warn you!

When we went for coffee and cake at my in-laws, I am not sure my mother-in-law, looking reed thin and ashen grey, really knew who I was, but she greeted me warmly anyway. She simply avoided any situation where she had to refer to me by name.

Though her memory may be failing her, my mother-in-laws pride is still in good working order. When it was time for coffee, she refused all offers of assistance and got up to make the preparations herself, because that is just what any good hostess of her generation would do.

As the polite living room chatter continued, we watched as she made countless trips back and forth from the kitchen, setting out all the plates, coffee cups, spoons and forks on the dining room table.

I am sure my father-in-law had cheated a little and laid out everything in the kitchen in advance of our arrival, yet I could see the worry on her face as she stood looking at the items she had arranged on the dining table, trying to make sure that she had not forgotten anything. When she finally announced that coffee was served in the dining room, all I wanted to do was to give her a big old hug.

It troubled me greatly to see too the toll my mother-in-laws illness was taking on her partner of over 60 years. My father-in-law seemed so deeply depressed that it was both shocking and heartbreaking to see. Throughout their long marriage, he has always assumed a very traditional role as a husband, and now in his late eighties/early nineties, he was starting over, and learning to cook and clean the house for the first time.

When, in life, does a house cease to be a familiar place of comfort, and becomes instead an untenable burden?

Honestly, there seems to be an overwhelming degree of denial in addressing this question on the part of both my parents and my in-laws. 

So far, my father-in-law has flatly refused to bring in outside help. 

My Dad is unsteady on his feet and walks with a crutch now. All to soon, climbing the stairs will become an impossibility for him, yet my mother continues to speak of any future transition in their living arrangements as something in the far distance.

I hate to be too grim about my trip home to Nova Scotia and give you a false impression. Though I did spend many a night tossing and turning, fretting about what the future will bring, there were many good times as well. At my sister-in-law's place one evening, there was plenty of lively conversation and laughter over plates piled high with chicken, massed potatoes and gravy. There was also a fun pizza night at my brother's house.

My sister N., who had come all the way from Ireland with two of her three children, managed to give her Irish kids a proper introduction to winters in Canada, with happy afternoons spent skiing and skating. We also went bowling, to the movies, to the farmer's market and shopped til' we dropped. 

Gosh, how I miss both of my sisters and wish we could get together more often!

This is my brother's dog 'Scout'. The arrival of a new baby at my brother's house has meant that Scout has been spending more time than usual at my parent's place. My mother simply adores him and we often joke that Scout is her favourite grandchild.

Scout is a Nova Scotia Duck Toller (a breed of dogs unique to Nova Scotia). It doesn't matter how cold the water is, give him even the slightest excuse, and Scout is off for a swim!

He is also quite the ham!

I will always have such fond memories of him riding around with my parents in their little grey Honda, Scout standing in the backseat, forepaws resting on the centre armrest, presiding over the two old people in the front passenger seats.

I will also treasure the lazy afternoons I spent sitting with my Mom, listening to family stories, hearing all about her wooden carving projects on-the-go and reviewing with the magazine clippings earmarked as ideas for future projects. 

It seems that those as-yet-to-be-completed projects are what keep you going when your almost 90! That and gardening!

Of course, we spent the good part of a morning making an all-important tour of the garden, despite the cool winter weather! These days my Mom keeps herself young, while serving as head gardener at my sister M.'s house.

Have yourself a great weekend everyone!


  1. Jennifer I know how things work when parents are in the late 80. And altzheimer is sooo terrible even for the patient or the family around. My father in law had 3 strokes. First his right arm and leg did not work anymore and the third is the reason he can't speak anymore. It heards badly to see some one you love like this.
    Hope you have a lovely weekend
    warm wishes Marijke

  2. Hi Jennifer - I'm sorry to hear that your trip was bittersweet. As I age myself (only 56 next week), I find watching my parents grow old so painful. Both parents suffer with Type 2 diabetes - my father losing a leg 3 years ago. Years divorced, my parents handle their illness so differently. Where my father takes each setback as a challenge, my mother wallows in her ailments. That's saddest of all.
    Each year, I thank God that they are still with us, no matter their diminished capacities. I hope you can cherish the time you had with them and remember the good.

  3. Jennifer, I do know how difficult and sad this is.
    I was only 12 when I lost my Dad, but my Mom had Alzheimer's.
    For over 15 years.
    The most difficult part was when she was still aware enough to know what was happening to her, and that seemed to last for such a long time.

    I love your hyacinth photographs. They are really beautiful.

    Sending you wishes for a beautiful weekend.

  4. Jennifer..I needed to read this today. Thank you. We are going through some of the same things. Your piece was touching and so sensitive.

  5. Moja Mama z powodu tej samej choroby ostatnie 6 lat życia przeleżała w łóżku, nic nie mówiła i nikogo nie poznawała.Taty już nie było. Tak, że wiem co znaczy starość i choroba Rodziców. *** Dobrze, że spotkanie rodzinne było miłe. Przerywniki trochę smutnej treści w postaci hiacyntów są świetne. Pozdrawiam. *** My mother with the same illness last 6 years of life lay in bed, did not say anything and nobody poznawała.Taty was gone. Yes, I know what it means to age and illness of the parents. *** Well, that was a nice family gathering. Cutscenes sad little content in the form of hyacinths are great. Yours.

  6. My heart goes out to you. I know the pain and loss of elderly parents. My Mother died almost 5 years ago from Alzheimers. My dad's day-to-day care of her until she had to go to a facility brought on a massive heart attack. He lost his very best friend and still misses her greatly. He recovered from his heart attack and I spend as much time with him as I can. Luckily we live close.

  7. We watched the same horrible disease take my grandmother. She was always an independent woman, university educated, survivor of the depression, author and artist. Her husband died just as they were reaching retirement, so she had many years on her own after hem, making it very hard for her to admit she needed help. Thank God for the people in the small town where she lived who alerted us to the dangers she found herself in. Getting her to move from the house to assisted living was a most difficult ordeal, on her and her children. I would rather die early than have to go through that.

  8. Jennifer, we went to Richmond this past August for my mother in law's 90th. She is doing pretty well, though she is worried about falling. After her party we went to my mother's house to help her and her 85 year old boyfriend clean up after Hurricane Irene. They need to go to an assisted living/adult apartment/nursing home establishment. I worry every time there is a high tide or a nor'easter or a hurricane. Neither wants to think about it for the near future. It is hard.
    I am glad you all had some good times together. Nice that your sister came over from Ireland. We aren't quite that far ocean between us. My brother and sister live in the midwest (Kansas and Illinois) and mom is in Virginia...and I am in SC. There is an old saying about how you can never go home again. Everything changes.
    Love Scout, what a cute pup.

  9. My pop would always say to mum that you have to have a lot of patience when dealing with someone who has Alzheimers he cared for my nan right up to the time he went into hospitial. I really feel for you having such a trip full of mix emotions...

  10. We were fortunate, in that we were able to have my mother living here with us for the last 2 yrs of her life when she had Alzheimers, it wasn't easy at times, especially when she didn't know who I was. Looking back now I feel it was a very special time that we had together, I couln't have done it without the help of my husband who had endless patience with her. I feel for you and what you are going through at the moment. So glad your Mum has her woodcarving and gardening, I too am a woodcarver with a long list of everything I want to carve, will they ever get done...who knows!

  11. This disease is such a heartbreak and to see a loved one go through it is unbearable. It took my grandmother, but she was lucky to have her daughter with her during the long progression. You were fortunate to see your family and will have good memories from the trip too. Scout is a good looking dog, animated too.

  12. Jennifer, my heart goes out to you. My father had a double dose with Alzheimers and cancer. It was heartbreaking. I remember the day we told him that he couldn't drive anymore. It was like the end of the world taking such freedom away. It is wonderful that your family could spend time together. I am sure that as distressing as it was at times that it also was a happy time for your parents and in-laws to see their children. It reminds us all that we need to savor every moment! Scout is adorable and I am sure very therapeutic for your mother. xo!

  13. Jennifer, I'm sorry to hear your trip was a difficult one at times. Your parents and in-laws are very fortunate to have such a large and loving family that care for them so dearly.

  14. I am not sure what is worse - seeing your parents degenerate with age or having them die at a reasonably young age, which mine did - in either case it is very sad to see people you love get old

  15. My parents died in their 50's but I wonder what will happen to my in-laws. At least your trip had fun times to balance the difficult ones. Those memories make the other ones easier to bear. Hang in there! :o)

  16. I was the local family caregiver for both my parents for over ten years until my mother died in 2008 at nearly 102 years old. We went through every level of care, from them in the family home, to an independent senior living apartment, to assisted living, and nursing home. I am reworking a blog I wrote during those years, when there was so little information (even on the internet) to help people with the heartbreaking situations and decisions that had to be made. We were fortunate to be spared Alzheimers, and my mother was very capable when she died, but it was a tortuous passage for all of us.

    I will definitely give you a shout when I get the blog up, but in the meantime, I highly recommend the New York Times blog, The New Old Age (don't know if I can put a link in here). It was the first, and still reigning best, blog for information and connection with the eldercaregiver community. The woman who founded it, Jane Gross, has some of the best posts -- early in the blog -- she left to write a book. Check it out.

    My heart goes out to you...your parents...and your in-laws.

  17. Jennifer I'm sorry. It is hard to see loved ones grow old. My grandmother died from complications of Alzheimer's and seeing her like that was very difficult.

  18. This was sad, and thought provoking. I often wonder how i'm going to handle my parents as their health continues to deteriorate. They have remained independent so far, but I wonder for how much longer. My biggest wish is to have wisdom in any decision I may have to make for them.

  19. This is such a beautiful post. I commend your courage and honesty to share your feelings and experiences with us. My great aunt had Alzheimers, and had been married to my great uncle for almost 70 years. My observation was that as she was slipping away, he couldn't bear it, so he slipped away with her, and he developed Alzheimers several years after she did. They passed away 4 days apart. I think (hope) that medical professionals realize that the partner of the Alzheimers patient needs just as much care and attention as the patient. Thank you again for your post - the punctuation with the hyacinth and Scout photos was also so appropriate and creative.

  20. Jennifer, I read your post with tears in my eyes. I know what you are talking about and how hard it is to see our parents health decline. My father passed away at age 88 in 2001 and not a day goes by I don't think about him. My mother is 91 and still living alone, and though she has slowed down a little, she's still independent. (She still drives....something that gives me pause at times, but she's still capable.) It's so hard to see them struggle and have the roles reversed, where the children become the parents. I was marveling at the one year old daughter of some friends of ours today, amazed at how much she's grown and changed since I last saw her a month ago. Then I got to thinking, do we as adults age at such a rapid pace, too? Life is so short, so precious. Thank you for the sharing your story.

  21. Jennifer,
    What a beautifully poignant post. Watching the health of our loved ones decline is so tough. Now, after four years have passed since my mom's illness and death, some of those "tough moment memories" are also some of my most treasured.

    Also, I must mention, "Scout standing in the backseat, forepaws resting on the centre armrest, presiding over the two old people in the front passenger seats," I love that image. Just love it!

  22. Jennifer, thank you for sharing your personal concerns and tender moments of you family with us. We too are approaching the difficult time of witnessing my husband's dad fall into memory problems. It's difficult to even put words to the emotions but your sharing reminds me that we aren't alone and that there are still lots of beautiful moments to be shared.

  23. Jennifer - as all the above comments affirm - you are not alone in your struggles. My mother-in-law too became a shell of her vibrant self due to dementia. It's a terrible disease. And yet looking at your gorgeous shots of the hyacinths and "Scout", one can't help but feel happy.

  24. Jennifer,so much that you write of is familiar to me. My daughter and her family lived in London for a number of years and returning to the cooler climate of Aberdeen used to annoy us, well for no more than 48 hours. My mother is now 91 and still living alone in a sheltered cottage. She looks so frail, but then again she always did. I remember as a young man her friend saying to me your mum wont see old age, I know by the look of her. Well here we are, she has outlived them all and feisty as hell. She would be entitled to meals on wheels,home helps and many things which would make things easier for all the family, but she will not hear of it. She does have dementia which sadly makes it very difficult getting through to her. Gosh, am I getting self absorbed or what, enjoy Spring when it arrives.

  25. Jennifer what can I saw that might be a small comfort to you with this being such an intensely emotional issue .. a huge number in our population is in this situation or soon will be.
    Our son who is trying to finally immigrate to the States does worry about his parents .. we aren't elderly .. just middle aged, but with some extreme health issues .. I know it weighs on his mind on how we will cope in an emergency .. he has seen his mother run around like a headless chicken much to my embarrassment .. but we know we will adjust and cope and our DIL understands his need to say if anything happens to either of you I will be here as soon as possible .. being an only child is a heavy responsibility which we didn't mean to create for him ..
    In any case .. your post has evoked many emotions from me while reading it .. I feel for you with looking to the future for your family in such a difficult way .. time will tell how it will work out .. live for today is a popular statement I am beginning to cling to now !
    I hope things will work out in a better way than you fear.

  26. Jennifer, this is an issue so many of us have faced or will soon face, and such a difficult one. My father has had two strokes in the last two years, and while he now has to walk with a cane, I am so thankful that his mind was not affected and that he is still able to do many things at age 86. So many of my friends have had to deal with parents with Alzheimer's, and I know it's not easy to convince them to change their living arrangements, but at some point it becomes the only option. I wish you well on this journey; I know it can't be easy.

    On the other hand, I'm glad to hear your mother is still gardening at 90--wonderful! Scout is adorable; I, too, love the image of him riding in your parents' car:)

  27. Love the sweet dog! What a beauty!!

    Hugs xox

  28. I find it hard to remind myself not to be so argumentative when I disagree something with my mother as she gets older. Lovely flower shots. I owe you some larkspur seeds. They are already pack. Sorry it has been such a busy year for us. Hope when they arrive it won't be too late to sow them. Seems that you still have plenty snow there.

  29. Your photos are lovely, and Scout is a charmer who reminds me so much of our dog Lily, who passed away a few years ago. She was a collie mixed with UNKNOWN, but surely she and Scout must have some common genes somewhere!

    It was difficult for me to watch my own parents grow old and in the end become completely dependent upon their children. It was a tough time, and sometimes there were no good solutions to difficult situations. It is important to remember to laugh and to find the blessings in each season. Treasure the good memories. Thank you for a beautiful and poignant post.

  30. As of yet, my parents are not showing signs of dimentia. My father, however, is having problems with his joints and must use a walker. I can see how it must be hard on a family--the aging process. I have friends who are experiencing some of the same feelings as you and your family. It is hard and sad...a part of life. I wish it did not have to be that way.


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