Dear Jack, Brenn and Meg,
I’m 36 right now. Not even middle aged. (Still quite young and vibrant, really…though maybe mostly at heart since there are days when I already feel tired as soon as I wake up.) But the idea of getting older has been pestering me for a while, spurred on by my weekly observations of the elderly patients that I care for at the hospital.
I’ve done a great deal of observing during my time as a therapist. That, coupled with the many hours spent with my grandparents during their time in assisted living (and later in a nursing facility,) has allowed me to see both the best and worst of the aging process. At times it can be beautiful; at times, unbearable.
So lets talk about that, shall we? Let’s talk now, because (let’s be honest) we might as well plan for what may happen. I’d love to think that I’ll retain my razor sharp mental skills (Paul just rolled his eyes!?!) until the moment I take my last breath, but I’m pragmatic enough to realize that chances for that are slim. I’ve also noticed that the aging process tends to draw out and highlight the best and worst of human characteristics. Thus, as I advance into my last decade, I could become both wildly optimistic but also extremely defensive. I may want to please everyone but believe that I’m always failing at everything. (Your father will become even quieter and even more grumpy when hungry – so always bring him cinnamon rolls and Pringles….then you’ll be ok : ) We hope that God’s lifelong pruning will leave us strong, stable vines with roots deeply grounded in God’s word and fed by the refreshing water of the Holy Spirit’s power. Still…we might be slightly cranky and worrisome so it might be hard to love us at times. I’m sorry. Sigh.
Thus, given the uncertainty of our mental future, I’ve taken some of my observations and written them out as a series of requests – requests that I hope you’ll use to care for us wisely and gently when the time comes.
First, be honest with me.
Perhaps not brutally honest, but don’t avoid any conversation just because you worry that I’ll be upset. Please don’t hold whispered conversations together in the hallway where you hope I can’t hear you. Have them with me first, at least. Sure, I might disagree, I might even get a bit obstreperous, but as long as I have the capacity to think and reason, don’t shut me out of hard discussions. Maybe whispered conversations will be called for eventually and that’s ok because you may need to override my wishes, if I am being unreasonable. Still, don’t start there. Start by asking me what I think. What I worry about and why it worries me. This will certainly help you make the best choice for me, if the need arises.
Second, know that sometimes it will be hard for me to take advice from you – my children.
I’m your mother! The one who made all the decisions for you! It will be a difficult switch to go from protector to protected. But I do want to trust you. I know that it’s right, but that doesn’t always make it easy. Have patience with me. Lots of patience. Remind me of the truths that we both believe. Find common ground whenever you can. And I’m sorry in advance for those moments when I get defensive and obstinate. (You can show me this letter if you think it will help!)
Third, listen to me.
You can help me ease into life’s “well seasoned” stage by still asking for my opinion and advice. You may even know the answer before I give it (I’m sure I’ll be as repetitious as my patients at the someday) but don’t let that stop you! Ask anyway. Chances are I won’t remember the last time I doled out the same bit of wisdom before and having you ask me will make me feel special. I will feel like your mom again. I will feel like I can still help you. I’ll love that.
Fourth, keep me busy.
You can help me ease into life as an older person by giving me a task, a real task, for as long as I am able to handle it. I’ll fold laundry, file paperwork, iron shirts, sort magazines, shelve books – simple tasks that you might think seems demeaning. But for me, they won’t be. When, due to failing mental acuity, I can no longer do a real task, give me a fake one. Just keep my hands busy with work – even if it’s folding the same basket of towels over and over. Again, I’ll need a purpose, a task. Without it, I fear that the weight of my own uselessness will be crushing. Make me feel needed, even if for the humblest of jobs.
Fifth, don’t always try to change my mind.
When I start to become unreasonable, when evidence-based arguments no longer seem to change my mind and I begin to hold to my beliefs regardless of your attempts to explain a subject, I want you to ask yourself this question. Ask, “is being right about this subject worth my time and effort to try and change Mom’s mind?” Yes, maybe I’ll sound irrational to the people around me, but if I’m not hurting anyone and your attempts to steer me towards more reasonable waters have proven exasperating (i.e. extremely upsetting to either you are me), then maybe just let it alone. You can shake your head once you’ve left my room, but while you’re with me, let me be happily convinced that my opinions are perfectly logical. It’s a small price to pay and believe me, all the nurses in the care facility are used to sweet old ladies with nutty ideas : )
Sixth, ask me about my past.
Of all the things that seem to cheer my hospital patients up the most, it’s asking about the details of their life. So let me relive the moments that made me who I am. Ask me about how I met your father, ask me about the adventures that I took, ask me about times that were tough, ask me about moments that made me laugh, ask about my friends, ask about my marriage, ask about the places I lived and the jobs that I had. Even if you’ve heard the stories a hundred times, ask me again! Memory lane is a lovely place to stroll. So stroll with me. Show me that you enjoy our walks down that well-beaten path.
Seventh, don’t stop asking for my help.
Now, this will most likely apply to those years immediately prior to being “really old.” As I age, my ability to do everything that I’ve always done will slowly start to diminish. Maybe I won’t notice. Maybe I will. But either way, work with me to adjust expectations. Don’t just stop asking for my assistance. Maybe I can’t drive cross country to spend the week with you anymore – but maybe I’ll fly in for the weekend. Maybe I can’t cook a giant thanksgiving meal like I used to – but maybe I can make the desserts if you’ll make the supper. In other words, don’t assume that I’m too haggard to do anything as soon as you see me unable to do everything.
Eighth, don’t try to explain really, really complicated things to me unless I ask you too.
Chances are, I might not be able to follow your explanation (and I know it.) If you plow forward with your super technical lesson (even if it’s for my benefit) then you run the risk of only making me feel stupid. If I want to learn, I’ll ask. If I don’t ask, be hesitant to share all the complex details. Remember, I use to explain stuff to you. I used to be quick-witted and engaging. As I age this might change – and maybe it’s hard to realize this.
Ninth, don’t wait for a crisis to ask me my opinion.
Have the hard conversations about living wills, burial arrangements, financial planning, medications, living situations, etc. when life isn’t frantic and I’m not hooked up to multiple IVs. When I’m laying in a strange hospital bed, surrounded by people and things I don’t recognize, don’t ask me if I want to go home or to a nursing facility. Of COURSE I’ll want to go home. What a crazy question! But if you have a thoughtful conversation with me at some point before an emergency, I may be able to make some more reasonable choices. Write those resolutions down. Then, when I’m desperate and wanting to make an emotional decision, remind me of what we already determined. (And if I won’t listen to myself, well, just go ahead and do the right thing. Hopefully I won’t freak out too much : )
Tenth, make me feel loved.
“Knowing” is different than “feeling” and as I age, the latter starts to take precedent over the former. So hold my hand. Laugh with me. Tell me stories about our family. Bring me my favorite things (don’t wait for me to ask.) Show me pictures (your pictures or my pictures.) Hug more. Talk more. Write more (but remember to give me my glasses : ). I might not notice your acts of service or even the quality time that you give to me because that takes some noticing, thinking and reasoning. So as my mind slows down you’ll need to increase the simple displays of overt affection so that I can rest secure, feeling loved. I will endure much, will take my changing, aging life in stride, as long as I sense that you care.
So my dears, know that your mother cherishes you enough to help you plan ahead. But love is a curious thing. While writing, I realized that what applies to loving the elderly often applies to loving the very young. You all are little right now (nine, six and three) and maybe…maybe God had me write this list as a reminder to myself to modify my love for you today! Maybe my example of tailored love now will help you tailor your love for me later. And someday, as your father and I age and our dependence on you grows, I’m sure that there will be moments of awkwardness and moments of pain. But I believe that our family will put down roots of such deep and faithful love that we’ll be strong enough to weather the storms of the future.