Family

children • education • parents
relationships • marriage • the elderly

Family

The Joy of Elder Care

May 22, 2020 by

“Are you my maid now?”

“Yep, I’m at your service! What do you feel up to this afternoon?”

She grins, her remaining natural teeth showing in her still-gorgeous smile. “What do you think I’m up to?”

“No good!”

That gets a laugh.

“Let’s go out and catch some sun”, I offer. “It’s warm and sunny and there are some new lambs up in the pasture. They’re a lot of fun to watch.”

She confirms that it’s a great plan, and soon we’re heading out the door: Kathy bundled up warmly in her power chair, me driving from behind. Not ten feet out, she’s already launched into the running commentary that will last the whole walk. “Just look at that flower! And that forsythia! Isn’t it unusually golden this year? … Oh dear, look at that brush pile. Let’s clean it up. It’s messy.”

young and old women

I assure her that someone is working on clearing the nearby bank and that he will take the brush away when he’s done. We head on up to the sheep pasture to see the lambs. One lamb was born with crippled front feet, and the shepherd has bandaged them both so carefully that the lamb has almost total mobility. Kathy laughs as the lamb leaps around hyperactively, filled with the seemingly uncontainable joy in life. His dam, irritated by his energetic insistence that it is time for a drink nudges him away with her head, but he bounds around to the other side of her, playfully butting her, and then climbing on top of her to balance on her woolly back. Kathy narrates all his actions. Her constant talking can get annoying, but mostly I’m entertained, fully engaged and doing the mental long-jumps necessary to keep up with the quickly-changing topics.

I’m not sure what it is, but I love caring for her, and for elderly people in general. I love kids, but I really love old people. I love hearing their stories when they think back over their long, adventure-filled lives, gleaning wisdom for my future from their words. But I’ve also cared for those, like Kathy, whose minds no longer travel memory lane, but are rather in the moment of Now. Tomorrow she won’t remember this walk or the funny lamb. We’ll take the same walk again: admire the flower, the extra-golden forsythia, the funny lamb: all brand new. She’ll ask the same questions and I’ll give the same answers: all news to her.

That’s not to say caring for her is a breeze. Caring for any person has its ups and downs. It’s been that way with the other elderly women I have cared for, including my own grandmother. Kathy and I have almost daily run-ins. This morning she was really irritated at me for putting paper in the trash that was only used on one side. But by afternoon she has no memory of it, and is thrilled to see me. No need to work on forgiveness: it’s unconditional by default.

Caring for her, and for others in general occupies me. It gives purpose, keeps my brain from tying me in those inevitable intellectual knots or going down those endless philosophical rabbit holes in which I get lost and confused.Caring for her, and for others in general occupies me. It gives purpose, keeps my brain from tying me in those inevitable intellectual knots or going down those endless philosophical rabbit holes in which I get lost and confused. When I’m with Kathy life gets simple: food is a highlight, sun is a highlight, animals, kids, people in general are highlights. She doesn’t recognize all our friends and neighbors anymore, but they wouldn’t know it. She greets them all with her warm smile and a “How are you doing?” that waits for an answer.

Kathy used to be a high school teacher and a highly skilled seamstress. She raised eleven children. She could sit here in her chair and grieve the loss of her ability, her aching joints, her immobility, but I rarely hear any of that from her. She’s in her “second childhood” as it is often described, and I’m privileged to join her in it for the rest of this walk, and the walk tomorrow, and the day after that: laughing at the lambs, admiring the flowers, and glorying in the sunshine like little kids filled with the wonder of life.

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About the author

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Sheyann McPherson

Sheyann McPherson studies History and English Literature at the University of Pittsburgh, and lives at Pittsburgh House.

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