I mentioned awhile back that I was spending a lot more time helping out at my Aunt Gertie’s house lately, since she had a fall. Her shoulder is healing as well as you can expect for a 96-year-old, but in the wake of that accident we’ve been trying to force her to accept a little more help and a little less independence than she would like. Of course she lives very nearby so I’ve always dropped in and out, and done things like pick up her groceries, but now I’m helping her get ready for bed every night, helping her get dressed and get breakfast on weekend mornings when there’s no home-care worker there, and generally trying to do more of her chores.
She’s very stubborn and still wants to do everything herself, and has trouble accepting limitations and help. Case in point: last night she refused to eat the supper she had planned because she had a new home-care worker while her regular worker is off for a few days. Aunt Gertie was afraid the new worker would sit with her and watch while she ate instead of going out in the living room to watch TV as she has trained the regular worker to do. She didn’t think she could enjoy her supper if someone was watching. See what I mean about stubborn?
But the interesting thing in all this for me is that, while for the first few weeks after her accident I was kind of chafing against all the extra work and responsibility this was bringing my way, I have discovered in the last week or so that I am actually really enjoying the time spent over there and things I do for her (not sure how much she is enjoying it, but she seems to resent help less from family than from others).
I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m enjoying it so much. Have I suddenly turned into a better, kinder person? Is it just the joy of being able to help someone who did so much for me when I was younger (Aunt Gertie was my primary daytime caregiver in my preschool years and then after school for the rest of my growing up years)? I’d really like to think that, but honestly, I’m just not very altruistic and when I do things for others I often keep up a little internal grumble. No, I think I’ve figured out what the appeal of helping out at Aunt Gertie’s house is: it’s so much simpler than my own house.
No kidding, eh? Keeping house (part-time, given that she does have a homecare worker in there during the week as well) for a single senior citizen is so much easier than looking after a house populated by two growing kids, a husband and a dog. If I go into Aunt Gertie’s and no-one’s washed dishes all day, there is one bowl, one plate, four spoons and three teacups to wash. Maybe a glass and a saucer on a really heavy day. If nobody washes dishes at my house all day (and, let’s admit it, nobody does unless they’re being threatened or bribed), then every dish we own is spread across the counter as far as the eye can see.
There’s no actual cooking to do at Aunt Gertie’s because everything she eats tends to be brought in from the outside — my mom and I bring leftovers and, in my mom’s case, meals she’s specially cooked, we get her take-out from Swiss Chalet or A&W, and church ladies drop off jars of soup. Everything is reheat and eat.
Also, it’s emotionally much less complicated than my own place. I’ve already said Aunt Gertie is stubbornly independent and can get cantakerous when she perceives you’re trying to limit her independence. But I’ll take a cantakerous 96-year-old over an overwrought 11-year-old and a saucy 13-year-old any day. Not that my children are always overwrought and saucy, anymore than Aunt Gertie’s always cantakerous. Most of the time they’re all quite lovely. But when the kids get upset, the stakes are so much higher. I worry about everything I do and say in response: will I scar them for life if I am too strict or not strict enough? If I respond the wrong way, am I setting their feet on a path that will lead to a misspent youth? Am I scarring their self-esteem or am I failing to teach them compassion for others? Everything is just so fraught with consequences.
I’ve worked my whole life with young people and never understood people who liked working with the elderly. I love the hope and promise inherent in working with kids, the potential they have yet to develop. I’ve always been a bit mystified by how someone can enjoy putting their time and effort into working with people who have nothing left to do but die as peacefully as possible.
But now I understand. With the elderly, the stakes are so much lower. Not that they don’t deserve the same standard of care, but in a way, they’re not as fragile. Aunt Gertie has already turned out. She’s lived her life and it’s been what it’s been, and I think she thinks it’s been pretty good. Nothing I do now is going to ruin it for her, and so I feel so much more relaxed, even when she gets saucy with me. I don’t think, “Wow, she’s so stubborn! Is that going to get her in trouble later in life? Will she have difficulty in school, in the workplace, if I don’t help her outgrow that?” No worries! I just think, “Wow, she’s really stubborn … what a pain. Oh well.” And then I deal with it and get on with washing her four dishes, or whatever the task at hand is.
So, unexpectedly, I am finding in midlife that caring for an elderly relative is not nearly as burdensome as I’d always expected it to be. It’s actually kind of fun.
I’m sure my parents will be relieved to hear I’m thinking this way!