“Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the little old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-up don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.
(The Little Boy and the Old Man, from “A Light in the Attic” by Shel Silverstein)
I read this poem by Shel Silverstein many years ago, and found it touching. Today, I see it in a different light. Not only am I growing older myself (which is, to use the vernacular, “a bitch”), but I’m getting to deal with a senior who I care about, but who seems to be pushing away those who care about her.
The situation is this: this senior (my mother-in-law) lost the love of her life, her husband, four years ago. She’s been mad at the world ever since for taking him away. She has steadily withdrawn from activities she used to do with him, while bemoaning the fact that she is lonely. This was made worse over a year ago when a car accident demonstrated that her acuity had started to deteriorate to the point where it was not safe (for her or for people around her) to be driving. The DMV pulled her license, increasing her isolation and putting her, as she puts it, “in jail”. Translation: Although she could physically drive, she shouldn’t be driving. I recognize this is one of the hardest decisions to make, for if you don’t live in dense areas with good transit, it leaves you housebound. Luckily, there are services like Access Paratransit, LA Cityride, TLC Senior Ride, and loads of other services.
The loneliness manifests itself in a number of ways, usually in the form of a phone call around dinner-time, usually about 5 minutes after I walk in the door after driving the vanpool home on the 405 for 90 minutes. I answer the phone hurriedly (as my wife usually doesn’t answer the phone). When she asks “how are you?”, I answer that I just walked in the door. At this point, one of two things happens. She asks for my wife, and if my wife is unavailable she gets upset with me and cuts off the call. Alternatively, she’ll just sit on the line. When I ask if there is anything I can do for her, she’ll say “no” and hang up. Sometimes she’ll ask what we’re doing for dinner. Often, we have other things going on and we tell her that. Again, she then quickly goes “oh” and cuts off the call.
Making matters even more worrisome to those who care about her is that her “jail” is a two-story townhouse, with the bedroom and full bath upstairs. She’s moving very slowly and unsteadily, and we are very worried about her falling on the stairs. She has part-time assistance, but it is only part-time (and she still complains about being lonely). We’ve been trying to convince her that now is the time to consider an assisted living facility: she could move without our worrying about her falling, and she would be around people so she would not be so lonely. These facilities (such as Aegis) also provide transportation and events.
From her point of view, she thinks we want to put her in a “home”, which she equates with a old-style nursing home. We’ve had her visit — and even do a short stay — in some nearby assisted living facilities that are very nice, but she still thinks “nursing home”. We’re debating showing her the difference. She would rather be home alone (calling us to complain about it, trying to get us to invite her to dinner and go pick her up).
My wife tends to approach this issue bluntly, which doesn’t always work. I tend to try to use finesse. I recognize that I need to understand where my mother-in-law is coming from and what her concerns are in order to address them. I still believe that we can convince her that such a facility is in her interest. Alas, I fear that she is moving down the path my father took: slowly losing faculties without realizing it; finding the old ways and the old pain more comfortable than solving the problem.
I have this feeling she’s stuck in the lyrics of the song “Who Gave You Permission?” from “Ballroom”:
Who gave you permission?
Who said you could go?
If you had asked me,
I would have said “no.”
You always said we would grow old together.
You always promised that’s the way it would be.
You never said that one would go first.
How could you do this to me?
Who is there to cook for?
And what’s there to clean?
And how will I fill up
the washing machine?
How do you sleep with nobody snoring?
Waste a teabag for one cup of tea?
One loaf of bread will last me a month.
How could you do this to me?
(the song goes on, but you get the idea). She’s choosing to be angry at the world for taking her love away; she’s happy being miserable and cursing the world. But those of us who care about her want her to be really happy: with friends, and in a safe place. But she doesn’t see it. She sees us as the people who are making her life miserable; the people putting her in jail. She doesn’t see it is her choice.
This is what I mean when I say “Growing old is a bitch.” Growing old is like cooking a frog on a pot in the stove. You don’t realize when the situation has gone too far; you don’t realize when things are going. You become like a small child, feeling ignored and frustrated and angry at the world. You become set in your ways, wanting the comfortable pathways even though they hurt every-time you walk them.
I wish I knew how to resolve this situation.