Dr. Frank Crane (1861–1928) penned a set of ten volumes of "Four Minute Essays." One of them touched my heart.
“She is my mother, said the young man, but I call her my baby. She is 80 years old. Old people are very much like babies and we ought to love them, for such is the kingdom of heaven.
I have an idea that life evens things up. When I was young and helpless she took care of me; now I take care of her. I am paying my debt.
She never left me alone when I was an infant. Now, I do not leave her alone. She was patient with me then; now I am patient with her.
She fed me; now I feed her. I clothe and keep her. “She sacrificed her young life for me; now I am glad of every chance I have to sacrifice for her. She loved me when I was ignorant, awkward, needing constant care and all because I was hers, born of her body and part of her soul. Now every feebleness and trait of childishness in her endears her to me for no other reason except that she is my mother.
By so much as she is a tax on my time, attention and money, I love her. She shall not triumph over me on the day of judgment for my tenderness shall equal hers.
She watched with me until I grew up; I shall watch with her until she steps into heaven.”
Not so long ago, the accepted practice was that Mama would live out her golden years with her grown children. Her role would be that of looking after small children or helping out around the house. Family responsibility was shared back in the day.
But times they are a’changing. For many reasons, Mama’s option to live out her last years surrounded by a devoted daughter or son may be a thing of the past, her presence more of a tempest in a teapot than a calm transition. Factor in her potential for stroke, broken bones, or God forbid dementia, Mama’s tempest has the makings of a perfect storm.
While she may be happy living with her son or daughter, it is a huge adjustment for everyone. In the beginning, Mama is self-reliant and capable of taking care of minor aches and pains. In time, however, her small issues will become large problems.
One of my friends told me that her eighty-seven-year-old mother took a bus to a barbershop and told the barber to shave off all of her hair. I asked if she was on chemo. My friend said, “She doesn’t have cancer. She just wanted to look like Sinead O’Connor.”
Another friend complained that her mother-in-law wanted to cook her son’s favorite meal but ended up catching the kitchen on fire. When she was subsequently banned from cooking, she became belligerent and blamed my friend for the accident— in four-letter words, no less.
My friend confessed that living with her husband’s mother was a nightmare, that everything revolved around her quirks and mood swings. “I love her,” she said, “but she makes my life so hard. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I resent my husband because he’s an extension of her. We argue over the things we dismissed as trivial in the past. The stress is killing our relationship.”
Sharing one’s home with another woman is tough duty. It’s even more difficult feeling helpless as your other relationships disintegrate before your eyes.
The question remains: What are we going to do about Mama?
Do we hire a qualified caregiver to live with her in her own home, or in our home?
Back in the day, Mama would have lived with one of her grown children until she died. That may still be a possibility if Mama’s growing needs do not tear apart the fragile fabric of the Twenty-first Century family.
Do we ship Mama off to a reliable facility with the promise to visit every Sunday afternoon? If so, who pays for it?
Mama ain’t getting no younger. Let’s encourage her to maintain some independence by planning her own future. If she wants to remain in her home with a caregiver, tell her to carve it in stone.
If she prefers to live with her grown children, they need to have conversations about what her role in the family structure should be.
If Mama chooses to live out the rest of her life in a graduated living facility, the choice needs to be made early enough so that when the time comes, it’s a done deal and she can make the move knowing she has the support of her loving family.
“She watched with me until I grew up; I shall watch with her until she steps into heaven.”