It Takes A Village
(The following, taken from my manuscript, is copyrighted, nonfiction except for the names, and may not be reproduced without permission)
A social worker who worked with older adults in New York, reminds us “It takes a village to raise a child,” then points out that at the other end of the life cycle “It takes a village to keep the grandparent in the village.” Meet Bob. For him the village provided both care management and relationships.
Bob had no family to watch out for him, yet he continued to live in the small suburban New York studio apartment he and his wife, Ruth, had shared until the day of his death at age 84.
He was 72 and retired on a small pension when Ruth died. He had the beginnings of macular degeneration, was an unrepentant smoker, and had only a few friends. But they supported him in his time of need by inviting him to dinner, giving him the key to their home so he could play their piano, and having him help them by walking their dogs when they were at work. In all, five unrelated people, decades younger than Bob, looked out for him.
In the twelve years following Ruth’s death, Bob’s macular degeneration worsened; at 80 he quit driving. One dog owner wrote his checks, which he signed, so his bills got paid. Another friend took him marketing until walking became a problem, whereupon she did his grocery shopping. Two years before his death he could walk only a short distance before wheezing, coughing, and labored breathing made walking difficult. Going to the doctor became difficult. At a certain point he refused to go for anything other than a flu shot.
Responding to a suggestion of assisted living, Bob let it be known that he had no intention of going into one of “those” places, where he’d have half the space and wouldn’t be allowed to smoke. He didn’t need good vision to navigate his small apartment—or to light his cigarette for that matter. His home was his anchor, his safe haven.
When his unopened mail overflowed the table, and food began to mold in the refrigerator, and the apartment became a mess, another of Bob’s younger friends called the town’s social services for the aged. Bob was interviewed and charmed the social worker with his fine mind and love of music and poetry.
The result: Disaster Masters came to clean up—and out—Bob’s apartment, with Bob sitting there directing what stayed and what went. Meals on Wheels began bringing food. A home-aide came for an hour, three mornings a week at 8am, to do laundry and straighten up before going to her other jobs. The social worker arranged for three volunteers to come weekly for socializing. One, a woman, loved poetry and read poems to Bob every Thursday.
With the necessities taken care of and additional daily monitoring by two neighbors on his floor, Bob was able to remain in his apartment until the morning he died peacefully in his bed at age 84.
Bob had no family members to care for him. He liked living alone. Contrast his experience with that of Ellie’s grandmother, in Eastern Canada, who was surrounded by well-meaning family members.
A Flower Pulled up by the Roots
“My grandmother was a farmer in the early days. Later she and my grandfather lived in a home with a big piece of property where Grandma raised flowers and vegetables. She had such pride in her garden and was in it every day she could be. When Grandfather died, her children wanted her to move to a smaller place and not have the burden of a large home and grounds and they talked to her about it—again and again and again.
"In time, Grandma said she would move. I felt this was the wrong thing for her to do, since the garden meant so much to her, and with 28 relatives, I was going to organize it so she’d have someone visiting each day, could keep her independence, and could be monitored.
"Finally, one day she said: ‘Put the house up for sale.’ She then moved in with my mother—and died a year later.”
According to the wise octogenarian (quoted previously in the manuscript), we also need to realize that “As you age, you lose the energy to fight... and give in.” This may be the reason Ellie's’s widowed grandmother finally agreed to move in with one of her children.
While the “village” enabled Bob to live out life on his terms without family involvement, the loving adult children and grandchildren who surrounded Ellie’s grandmother exerted influence that produced a different outcome.
With usually only one chance to do it right, asking ourselves the following questions can serve as guidelines for better decision-making:
- When making decisions or promises, what is the priority: our needs or our parents’ needs?
- Are our decisions aimed at maintaining parents’ independence until it’s no longer safe for them to remain as they are?
- Are we mindful of not prematurely undermining any of the essential ingredients for aging well--self-esteem, independence, socialization, having fun (activities)?
- Do we have all the information we need to make—or help our parents to make—the best informed decisions?
- Is it possible that old emotions from our growing-up days creep into and influence our decision-making?
- If unresolved relationship issues remain, does it make sense to seek the counsel of others when making important decisions?
- The above is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.
While most of us are no doubt excellent caregivers or reliable mainstays for our aging parents, there can be siblings as well as other family members who think they know what's best. It's not only frustrating, but can lead to outcomes that are worse for parents than if they had no children. Since we usually have only one chance to do it right, the guidelines for decision-making will hopefully come in handy as we invest ourselves in helping parents age well.