Navigating Options for Our Elders

All of us witness and experience aging. When we are younger, our lives are filled with work, play, children and more. Aging does not seem to impact us personally unless we have an aging family member or loved one. At some point in our lives however – aging becomes a very personal affair and one that cannot be sidestepped. We become aware we can no longer do all of the things we once did. Sometimes this awareness creeps in slowly and gradually, at other times it comes like a bolt of lightning.

A columnist quoted a woman, who was counseling residents in a retirement home, “to keep their world as big as they can”. It is easy to let the outside world shrink as we move from careers and family responsibilities of parenting our young and taking care of home and yard. If we are fortunate, we ease into our elder years with health intact and finances to cover expenses with enough left over to fulfill those dreams of – cruising through the Amazon, learning how to tango, celebrating grandchildren’s graduations, etc.

Over the Holidays, I went to visit my aging mother who I feel is going to die from a broken heart. She lost her favorite partner in life (my father) 5 years ago to lung cancer. He was one of the <15%’ers that never smoked but still died from the disease. They traveled the World together, shared candlelight meals every night together and cheered for the Ohio State Buckeyes together. Now it saddens me to visit my mom so infrequently and see how quickly her decline is happening. I feel she was one of the most vibrant women I have ever met. She taught me to try and make a difference in this World and led by example by moving to California from Pennsylvania to teach at Watts in downtown L.A. She wanted nothing to do with teaching affluent kids in Laguna Beach where they lived and preferred to make the one hour daily commute on the highway to enrich and teach the lives of 5th grade students in the inner city. I remember my dad accompanying her after he retired and using their own money to take kids out of the school and experience a fun field trip to a local garden.

Now we need to face the fact of the next chapter– how long can she live in this big old house? “Courage is strength in the face of knowledge of what is to be feared or hoped. Courage is to act on the truth that we find” points out Dr. Atul Gawande in Being Mortal. One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter the most.

Tying this experience back into the work that we do here at Tri-County Health Network, I have learned that there are options out in our communities for the elders that I was not aware of. Through Region 10, I have learned that every month there are free services offered for caregivers and families who need assistance to fill out legal papers, give rest to the weary and even offer evidenced-based classes such as Cooking Matters and Chronic Disease Self-Management Programs. I have also learned to be appreciative of the choices my mother has made and respect the place she is in now. To ask those questions such as “What is most important to you?” and “What are your worries?” My mother knows more than I realize and now it is an adjustment for her kids to let go of our dreams that are not her dreams. To write her letters because she never saw the usefulness of a computer in her life and call her every Sunday because her purpose in life now is to pick up the phone and tell us the Dodger score – not to accomplish anything else.   And that’s just fine.

— Sara Ballantyne, Clinical Associate at Tri-County Health Network