Monday, July 20, 2009

Never Too Old

Leona is a spry 72-year old who was widowed 18 months ago. When he became ill, she promised Stan, her husband of almost fifty years, that she would not wallow in self-pity after he was gone, that she would, instead, use whatever time she has left to enjoy herself and learn new things. Childless, and with many friends already gone she wasn't sure what that would entail but she gave her word so that he would not worry about her.
"I was so full of panic the first few weeks after the funeral that I could not move off the couch. I didn't even know how much money was in the bank because Stan had always shielded me from what he considered mundane matters which included our finances."
But Leona was determined to make Stan proud. So she slowly went from the couch to the kitchen and then from the kitchen to the patio until she eventually made it all the way to the sidewalk. It took all her courage just to step out of the house.
Her first outing as a widow was to her local library. "I didn't even want a book, I just wanted a safe place where I could sit and watch people." It was there in the entrance that she saw a flyer advertising computer courses for beginners. "It was time to play catch up," she told me with a chuckle, "so I did something very uncharachteristic."
Still reeling from her loss, she enrolled in the course without even asking what it would cost. "It forced me to get out of the house once a week, no matter how lousy I felt, and it ensured that at least on that one day I would have to interact with other people."
Two weeks into the program Leona realized that in spite of the pain of her loss, she was enjoying what she was learning and that she was among other adult people who did not judge her.
"I really loved discovering all the things a computer can do", she mused, "and that opened up a whole new world for me."
Armed with her computer competency certificate some ten weeks later, Leona enrolled in a more advanced course, and a third one after that. She bought herself a computer and although she needed help to set it up, she soon became adept at handling it. She learned how to make her own greeting cards (do you know how expensive store-bought ones are???) and how to pay her bills online. "Stan would have been so impressed by that!" she declared proudly. She was also able to keep track of her expenses, check her bank balance as well as her investments which alleviated her anxiety considerably. "I realized I was never really in charge of my own life before."
Of course, she also learned to send e-mails to those of her friends who have computers. Most of them are in Israel and it has made it easier to stay connected with people she likely will never see again. "At my age, travelling is not that appealing anymore. But I like staying in touch, especially with Stan's sister who is working on the family geneology chart." The project has prompted both women to have a daily exchange of e-mails they look forward to, filled as they are with memories and anecdotes about Stan and 'the good old days'. Learning about new technology has been very therapeutic for both grieving women, bringing them close at a time when they needed each other but could not physically bridge the miles between them. "The best part about all this," said Leona "is that the computer has allowed Stan to remain an active part of my life."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Moving Paradox

They say that moving is one of the most stressful things one can experience. I have moved 28 times during my life. Not always willingly but nevertheless always with curiosity and what I would call an open mind. As a result, I have come to understand that a house, even one that you love while you’re in it, is nothing more than bricks and mortar plus the history you put into it, the latter which you get to take with you when you leave, in the form of memories.
Once outgrown, a house can become a millstone around your neck. Endless repairs, more space than you need, rooms to clean and keep orderly even if nobody uses them, money spent that could otherwise help you have a better quality of life. In any case, that is my philosophy and luckily for me, also my husband’s. Over the years we have loved the houses we have inhabited (six of them in 25 years of marriage) and we have made sure (or been lucky enough) to always sell high and buy low, rather than falling in love with a property and paying dearly for that emotional attachment. This policy has served us well.
I also admit freely that I love having a fresh decorating canvas every few years because I get bored easily and enjoy changing colour schemes, placement of furniture, etc. As I get older I am also aware of the need to shed as we go so as not to burden my children later on with stuff that likely is only meaningful to me. With every passing year I feel the urge to travel lighter.
So it has been a challenge for me to understand why my 82-year-old mother-in-law insists on staying in a house she outgrew long ago. I get that she is attached to the place where she arrived as a bride in 1946. Over time, she and my late father-in-law made the old house better and more habitable and also turned the land behind it into a beautiful garden, which has given her great pleasure right up until two years ago when serious health issues arose. Her three children were born and brought up in that house. Her mother and husband died there. She knows no other place so intimately and I can appreciate that her collection of memories are a comfort in her twilight years.
But there are also bad memories in the house, sad days and months that took their toll on the entire family. The old place is drafty, full of plumbing and electricals that are no longer to code, cracked walls, tired paint and an old-fashioned kitchen that is so inefficient it saps the strength of even the strongest among us when we visit. Last winter, in order to economize, my mother-in-law dispensed with all but the most basic heating and spent her days reading and snoozing in front of the fireplace. No doubt she will try to do the same this year.
Because her arthritic knees are now stiff and painful which makes going up and down the stairs very difficult and because she has slowed down and lives alone, my husband and I decided to propose installing a ground floor bathroom so that she could live in comfort on the main floor. In order to access the existing pipes, we thought it might be a good idea to gut the afore-mentioned old kitchen and turn that space into a bedroom with an ensuite bathroom while creating a new kitchen in what is currently a storage area full of broken flower pots, old garden furniture and the general memorabilia of a long life.
On paper this plan looked great and so we confidently unveiled it to my mother-in-law on a recent visit. She was horrified. At first she worried about the expense we would incur on her behalf but then, after several sleepless nights she also let slip that she didn’t want dust and turmoil in her home. We know only too well that you can’t make home renovations of this magnitude without those two elements so we reluctantly had to give in and abandon our plan.
What about selling the house and moving into a nice apartment? Absolutely out of the question! The friends and neighbours she relies on would be dearly missed. Ok….how about hiring someone to live in and help with the basics? The only option my mother-in-law wants is the one that allows her to stay where she is and keep to her regular routine without disturbing anyone unduly. She wants to remain independent, which is something we DO understand. “And when I can’t function anymore”, she said the other day when I phoned her, “I will move into a Home.”
In theory that sounds very reasonable. Who among us doesn’t want to live independently until the very last moment and only give in to institutional living when no other option will do? But reality is not always aligned with text-book theories. The inefficient kitchen means nutritious meals are not getting cooked as often. We, her children, who live far away don’t want to think of her subsisting on tea and toast. The need to painfully climb up the stairs to both go to bed and have the use of a full bathroom means more wear and tear on the problematic knees. A slight trip and fall is all it would take to land her on the floor in a house that only she inhabits.
The bathroom itself is an accident waiting to happen. It is a sunken bathroom that requires going down two tiled steps to get into it. There is a tub, a deep one which even with a seat in it, is difficult to climb into. The lighting is poor and there is only one grab bar.
This scenario plays itself out daily in many families. We know we are not alone in wanting to see an elderly parent safe and sound. Not only do we want to help, we want to respect the parameters our elders require to keep their independence and dignity. So we are starting to accept that renovations are not the solution. Neither is bringing in a stranger or placing the dear lady into a modern apartment. The answer to the question is that there is no right or wrong action to take. There is only the possibility of a compromise. So the chair lift has been ordered for the stairs and the emergency lifeline, which connects to the local hospital, is now around her neck.
Moving is just not for everyone.