Last week, my hardy mother, aged 90, was hospitalized for the first time in over 20 years, due to a bout of pneumonia. We had been repeatedly cautioned that, despite her being strong, mobile, lucid and afflicted only with a controlled case of hypertension—longevity is in her genes—her age made her susceptible to respiratory infections.
Unfortunately, Mama’s strength is also her weakness. Because of her relative independence, she stubbornly refused for the longest time to get a personal yaya at an age when my friends’ parents have multiple caregivers. We have a maid who comes in thrice a week to clean the small living quarters I share with her, attached to my brother’s home, but when the maid is not there, she’s alone.
I had begged for years for her to get a helper, but whenever arrangements were made, she would cancel, or change plans, often without my knowledge. My brother, her favorite child (I’m convinced every parent has one, whether he or she admits it), would agree with her decision, telling me that we should humor her. I feared, however, that when the time came that she would need help, there would be nobody around to hold the bag but me.
With the pneumonia, my worst fears came true. Although I got assistance from my brother’s househelp in the week before Mama was confined, I ended up coming home late from work and having to clean her up through the night, as the respiratory weakness had made her incontinent.
When a round of antibiotics didn’t ease her coughing, we checked her into the hospital. Two of my sisters-in-law relieved me after my night shifts, and we hired a night nurse to help out, but by then I was exhausted.
Mama is home now and almost back to normal. My brother bought her a commode urinal, and is letting his househelp take over when I’m at work, but that’s a temporary arrangement. Only one out of eight grandchildren in Manila managed to visit her at the hospital, and that one boy works full-time; I figure getting the others to pitch in would be futile. After all, they’ve got their own lives, which don’t really include older relatives.
I thank God for friends who jumped to my rescue. Joy, whose mother is bedridden, bought me packs of diapers, bed pads and other stuff from Bambang, and listened when I wept in weary frustration. Cathy actually found me a helper, who is arriving this week, and I am crossing my fingers and praying to the high heavens she is okay so my mother has no excuse to “disapprove” of her.
It’s been quite the sobering experience, and I am in awe of the many singles out there who have to do this entirely on their own, with limited resources. I’d like to share some lessons for anybody who will sooner or later face the reality of an aging and incapacitated parent.
1) It’s the daughter’s job. I’m sure there are responsible sons out there who will be hands-on (read: change a diaper) or will at least make provisions for when the time comes, but in general, it’s the daughters who are expected to do the dirty work. I am the only unmarried child, the youngest and the only girl after five boys, three of whom have already passed away. Whoopee.
2) If you are blessed with siblings willing to share the responsibility, then please talk about the plan now—who does hospital duty, who she stays with, who pays for what. Of course it’s no guarantee, but I can’t help wondering how life might have been if I had a sister.
3) Prepare the space. Make sure the doors are big enough for moving around in walkers or wheelchairs, do away with clutter and make room for medicines, adult wipes and leverage to transport your parent in case of emergency. By their 60s, they shouldn’t be living upstairs anymore.
4) Prepare the caregivers early. If your parent is aging—I’m thinking late 60s, even if they’re in the pink of health—ensure that you already have dependable househelp your parent is comfortable with. Sooner or later you will have to ask them to bathe her or clean her privates. Don’t end up doing what I did, scrambling desperately for referrals from virtually everyone I know.
Even then, I have yet to discover if our new recruit will be up to the job, or if my mother doesn’t get stubborn on her, so it’s far from a done deal. If our system had been in place earlier, people (read: me) would not have been so stressed out.
5) Don’t lose your patience with your parent. This is easier said than done, and I confess I spent many of the last few days seething and resentful; it was not my finest moment. I’m a Daddy’s girl and always will be—not because I don’t love my mother, but because Mama and I have very different priorities and personalities. Although we are friends, she’s not among the first people I discuss my problems with. It doesn’t help, either, that only my brother can tell her what to do.
Bite my tongue
My patience wore thin during her illness, and I had to constantly bite my tongue to keep from cruelly reminding her that this is where her pride and independence got us. Still, as my closest friends pointed out, we roll up our sleeves and do what we have to do. She is my mother—she gave birth to me, I love her dearly, and I will help care for her until the day she dies.
Part of the anxiety, I realize, and as my psychiatrist pointed out, was that I saw my own future in my mother’s situation. The difference is, she has me; I am single, with no children, and no guarantee of younger relatives to depend on (well, there’s the one boy who visited his lola, but I’m not going to dump myself on anybody).
It has become part of my prayer nowadays for God to please not let me grow so old that I’ll be dependent on others; I’d really rather die with my boots on. But since that is not for me to decide, the best a single future senior can do is to pray and be prepared.
I wrote about this a few years ago, and the pointers remain the same: Save your money and guard your resources obsessively. Make sure you have medical insurance. Don’t expect a younger relative to take care of you, so have enough to pay for professional care; a friend of mine is already scouting for homes or hospices she can eventually check herself into.
In fact, we were saying, if somebody in the country opened a decent home for single seniors—and that’s not a small demographic—they’d probably make a killing. I certainly would sign up.
Stay close to friends on the same boat; from where I’m sitting today, it’s more likely that I’ll be growing old with friends rather than family. Don’t give away your money while you’re alive—well, maybe I’ll make the lone loving nephew caretaker of my measly assets so he can pay the hospice. Let’s hope he doesn’t marry somebody evil.
A last story to share: my dad also asked me, in no uncertain terms, to take care of my mother. He sent me a postcard, which is pretty cool, considering he died in 1983.
But no, this is not a ghost story ending; it’s about how there are no coincidences, and how the people who truly love us are always looking after us even when we can’t see them anymore.
On one of the days I came home from the hospital to get some rest, our cleaning lady pointed out papers Mama wanted disposed of. On impulse, I checked out the bunch—and found two postcards dated 1962, two years before I was born, from my father, addressed to my five brothers.
He was on a working trip to Paris and Nice, France. Seeing Daddy’s handwriting again after so many years made my heart leap. “I miss your Mommy terribly,” he wrote to the boys. “Take care of her!”
I hope you understand if I believe that this time, the message was meant for me. I never had to lift a finger to take care of my father, as he died suddenly, when I was 18.
Now, he has gently asked me to take whatever love and energy I would have eagerly dedicated to caring for him and pour it on Mama—because she’s my mother, and because he’d want me to. In taking care of her, I would be taking care of them both.
I had the postcards laminated to preserve them and now carry them around like talismans to clutch whenever I feel overwhelmed.
Caring for Mama may be difficult—and I’m sure it will get even more challenging as she ages—but this Daddy’s girl has gotten her marching orders. And she will obey.