I overheard a conversation. “How are your parents doing?” one asked.
“Oh, you know, they’re deteriorating,” said the other. “That’s it?” I thought. “That’s how she sums up her parents… They’re deteriorating? What about, “They’re facing some challenges but they’re coping ” or “They’re declining and struggling to maintain their independence” or “All things considered, they’re pretty resilient…” . Almost anything was better than reducing her parents to a short description of passive diminishment. And that’s when I thought about my dog.
Poppy is an old dog, very old for a greyhound. Her regal face is mostly white, and her deep brown eyes that once reached into your soul when she stared at you, are clouded with cataracts. The muscles in her once powerful hind legs are atrophied. That, combined with arthritis, makes transitions difficult. Often, she needs help getting into bed, steadying herself on stairs, or simply getting up from a nap. She has lost weight, so her ribs are prominent even for a greyhound. Her coat sheds constantly. Her failing kidneys cause her to drink more, and this in turn results in numerous accidents since she can’t move fast enough to get outside. She takes a long time to respond to simple commands like, “Come,” which we attribute to a combination of slower mental processing speed, hearing impairment and mobility issues. She sleeps most of the day and tires quickly. Although we care for Poppy, we get little back from her compared to the funny, affectionate dog she once was.
Yet, we are OK with our role as caretakers of a senior dog. Caring for Poppy is neither sad nor frustrating — it simply is.
If asked how she is doing, I would say, “She’s an old dog, but she’s doing great.” I wouldn’t say, “She’s deteriorating.” So why are we so much kinder when we describe elderly pets, than when we describe elderly parents? Why is it so much easier to care for pets we love as they age, than for people?
We see caring for elderly family members as an obligatory, unwelcome burden. We get angry with the physical tasks of caregiving, embarrassed by loved ones’ lack of hygiene, frustrated by their increasing need for support. We are so saddened by the diminution of who they once were, it is hard to accept or take pleasure in who they are now. Yet, we have none of these emotions with our elderly pets.
Recently, I overhead another conversation. A group of siblings were talking about a tiny dog, now 14, with whom they had grown up. “We put up a gate so she doesn’t fall downstairs. She’s incontinent and pees on the rug. She’s lost weight, her hair is thin, she’s lost most of her teeth. But she still plays with her toys and scampers around. She’s a happy little dog.”
We care for our elderly pets with patience and compassion because we remember who they were, and we accept who they are. Although there is loss when animals age, there is not sadness in the caregiving, and there is often joy. Yet human aging is so enmeshed with anger and sadness, it is hard to find joy. It seems we’ve internalized ageism — those of us who are aging and our caregivers as well. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but maybe an old dog can teach us.
We have a ten pound mirror. It’s not that it weighs ten pounds. It’s a floor length mirror surrounded by engraved industrial wood.
It’s a work of art, really. But that’s not why it’s special. It’s special because it’s a ten pound mirror.
There is something wrong with the optics. You walk by it, and then you come back and look at yourself again, and you look good, really good. Not totally different, just a little bit better than the real you. About ten pounds better.
We tend to be so hard on ourselves physically. Maybe we need more ten pound mirrors — a way to be gentler with ourselves, less critical of how we look. More self-acceptance, not because we are perfect, but because imperfection is OK. Maybe we all need our optics to be a little bit off.
But perhaps I am looking at this too narrowly. A ten pound mirror doesn’t need to be a “thing.’ Perhaps a ten pound mirror can also be a person — someone who helps us see ourselves a little bit better than we really are. It could be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, a child… someone who sees in us things we don’t see ourselves, someone who sees us as the person we wish we were. And because of what they reflect back to us, we see ourselves as a little bit better as well.
I know I’ve had people in my life who were ten pound mirrors for me, and I am so very grateful. I wonder if I have been a ten pound mirror for someone else. Are people who act as ten pound mirrors aware of the gift they give? If so, then being a ten pound mirror for someone else ends up being a ten pound mirror for yourself, as well. Sometimes the person we really are, is actually the person we want to be.
When you do a long distance walk, you learn a lot about hydration. Hydration is what we used to call drinking, but it’s a lot more complicated. Drinking is taking a liquid into your mouth and swallowing. Hydration involves what you drink, when you drink, how much you drink, and even what you drink out of. Who knew drinking could be this complex?
When I grew up, you drank water. With hydration, water is not good enough; you need uber water. The choices are mind boggling. There are sport drinks, energy drinks, vitamin drinks, carbonated drinks, non-carbonated drinks, flavored drinks, even drinks that help with alertness and motor skills. Different activities require different types of water. With hydration, you need to do research before you buy your drink.
When I grew up, you drank when you were thirsty. With hydration, drinking when you are thirsty is not good enough. You need to drink before you are thirsty. If you wait until you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.
When I grew up, you did not worry about how much you drank per day. With hydration, quantity is very important. In fact, a whole industry has developed of bottles that keep tabs on how much you drink each day, and not just bottles… now there are mobile apps! Apps to help you keep tabs on how much you are drinking, apps that send reminders to drink more and apps that sound alarms when you are under-hydrated (think iDrate). In the olden days, drinking was a pleasure. With hydration, drinking is an obligation.
When I grew up, you drank water from a fountain, a thermos or a canteen. It didn’t seem to matter what you drank from. With hydration, what you drink out of is very important. There are features to look for that enhance your drink –like infusers, filters, and refrigeration assemblies — and features to avoid — like bottles with BPAs — a harmful industrial chemical. There are transparent water bottles, opaque bottles, ergonomically shaped bottles, bottles with straws attached, bottles with hooks and handles, plastic bottles, metal bottles, glass bottles, even soft bladder bottles that fit in a backpack. CamelBak, the best known hydration backpack system, has reservoirs, bite valves and bite valve covers, filters, filter adapters, tubes, tube traps, and cleaning kits. With hydration, you need a user’s manual to figure out how to use the container you drink from.
Between types of drinks, how to manage intake and containers to drink out of, hydration is a multi-billion dollar business. Drinking wasn’t just simpler, it was a lot less expensive.
Of course, hydration has a flip side — elimination. There hasn’t been much change in elimination over the years — but that is the topic for a different blog post.
I don’t understand mid-life orphans. They complain about care giving responsibilities and then, when their parents pass away, they lament about being orphans. They say they feel bereft, unmoored, devastated by life without parents. Don’t they realize how lucky they are? Having elderly parents is a privilege some of us never had. Read more on “The Last Time I Was Mothered” »
I have been looking at my pile of orphan earrings, earrings without partners, wondering why I keep them. It’s true that a lost earring does sometimes show up, but many have been mateless for years. Why do I keep even those single earrings?
In sailing, the technique used to move against the wind is called tacking. In common use, tacking is the concept of making progress by zigzagging rather than moving forward directly. For adult children helping their parents transition from one home to another, tacking can be a useful concept.
Two years ago, a friend died suddenly after a horrendously short battle with cancer. I guess we all have our own way of remembering and honoring people we’ve lost. I remember Peg through “Peg miles”.
I am a walker. For 25 years, I’ve walked for exercise and enjoyment. I don headphones, select my favorite exercise album, and I walk. I swing my arms, I sing along, and I do something that is rare for me… I am in the moment.
Walking makes me feel alive and grateful to be healthy and vibrant. As a cancer survivor, I don’t take that for granted. I really, really love walking.
Thirty years ago, my 92 year old grandmother tried to kill herself. They called us from her personal care residence to say she had been found unresponsive, with an empty bottle of pills by her bed. My brother and I rushed to the hospital and heard the sound of her stomach being pumped. For all of you who have never heard this before, it is an awful sound. My brother and I looked at each other, wishing they had not found her in time. Shouldn’t a 92 year old be able to decide when enough is enough?
My grandmother became a widow with two children at 21. Seventy years later, she had buried three husbands, both of her children and one grandchild. Pain from persistent shingles, “pleurisy” and arthritis was constant and all consuming. When doctors gave her enough medicine to control her pain, she was too lethargic and nonfunctioning to live independently. So she faced her own brand of Sophie’s choice — live with pain and be independent, or be pain-free and live in a nursing home. She opted for a third choice.
Everyone called my grandmother Anya, short for Anyuka, the Hungarian word for mother. I think the first grandchild determines what grandparents are called, and my oldest brother chose Anya. In 1931, not knowing any English, Anya left her children with her parents in Hungary and came to America to make a better life for her family. Two years later, she married a widower with children and brought my mother and uncle to this country. Life during the Depression was hard, for Anya and millions of others. But over time, she lived the American dream. She started businesses, and although many failed, some succeeded. Her son became a doctor, and her daughter married a pharmacist. Both had single homes in the suburbs!
Two sisters were faced with who should have a set of dishes that had passed from their grandmother to their mother, and now to them. As they discussed who would get the dishes, they realized that what they both wanted was for their mother and grandmother to “be present” at future family gatherings, and so they developed a plan that worked for them: the dishes don’t really “live” anywhere. At the end of each family event, the dishes are packed into storage bags and taken by whoever is holding the next family event. Whenever the family gets together, the dishes bring up memories and stories, giving their mother and grandmother a presence at the table. I love their solution, because it is about relationships, not ownership. The legacy being passed down is not dishes. It’s loving memories shared by family, and tangible evidence of the good relationship between the sisters. That’s a wonderful legacy.
Two friends have a similar tradition. When their mother died, they couldn’t decide who would get two special items. One was a sterling silver pitcher their mother purchased at an auction when the girls were young. The pitcher had an ornate letter “F” engraved on it, which did not bother their mother. She must have been strangely omniscient, because years later, both girls went on to marry men whose last names began with “F.” Some things are too strange to ponder.
The other item is a beautiful ring their mother purchased during a shopping trip to New York City.
When their mother died, they laid the jewelry out on a table and took turns choosing pieces. Both sisters wanted the pitcher and the ring, and neither could choose one over the other, so they developed a plan to share them, adding their own traditions. The ring is always worn on New Year’s Eve, and the pitcher is always returned with fresh flowers in it. The exchange occurs every year on New Year’s eve. The ring is a wearable memory, an intimate, personal way of staying connected with someone who has died. The pitcher is a physical presence displayed proudly in both homes. Like the dishes, the legacy of the ring and pitcher is about relationships, not ownership.