Long Goodbye of the Elderly Can Create Crises For Family Caregivers
By Abigail Trafford
“Oh Abigail, I’m dying’.” My stepmother, then in her late 80s, telephoning me on a Saturday morning, her Southern voice faint and desperate. I drop everything and fly from Washington to Boston. When I get to her apartment, she greets me — all dressed up in a spring suit, scarf and jewelry — and says: “Thank God you’re here — I have to go to the hairdresser!”
Before I can put words to thoughts — Hey, wait a minute, you’re supposed to be dying! I canceled my life, racked up a credit card bill — she’s out the door.
In retrospect, she was also right. At the time of that phone call, she was a healthy, vibrant woman, independent and self-contained, difficult and resourceful. She worked in her garden and took a trip to the Galapagos. She also knew that she was slipping in body and mind — the gathering clouds of confusion and memory problems, weight loss, increasing frailty. The slow dying process had begun. She had no children; I would be the one to oversee her final trajectory, though I lived hundreds of miles away. Over the next decade, my stepmother moved to an assistant living facility; then she became too weak to go downstairs for dinner; finally, she needed extra nursing care. It was a long goodbye. She died last year at age 97.
The long goodbye is a predictable chapter in our lives. Giving care — and receiving care — is what to expect when you’re expecting to live a long life. Longevity has brought new opportunities to men and women as they get older. It has also created the national caregiver crisis.
“We hear a lot today about the joys of our longevity revolution. And we all look forward to the bonus years,” said author and social chronicler Gail Sheehy, 72, at the joint annual conference of the National Council on Aging and the American Society on Aging in Chicago last month. “But there is another side to the longevity revolution. It affects just about everyone — but it’s not the subject of public conversation. Family caregiving has become a predictable crisis for Americans in midlife and later life.”
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