My relative “Elaine” (I’ve changed the names) is celebrating her 83rd birthday. I make the five-hour drive and appear on her doorstep with a gaily wrapped shirt and jacket, some pretty note paper, and a face that triggers memories of her beloved aunt. Soon her daughter, Rachel, will stop by, and we’ll go out to dinner. Her son Michael is en route and will arrive later tonight.
But the occasion is bittersweet. Elaine is crippled by arthritis and advancing dementia. Both have clearly worsened since I visited last year. She shouldn’t be living alone, but she has refused all help. She won’t hear of moving, and she’s turned down offers of a cleaning lady, a home health aide, even Meals on Wheels. Her house and her person show signs of neglect.
I understand why Elaine does this. The house is all she has left of her late husband and their life together. After decades of renting, they took their savings and bought this little place, and they cherished it. Plus, leaving it means more than leaving him. Against all reason, Elaine clings to her independence.
Mike, who has made his life on the East Coast, 700 miles away, hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. He is frantic with worry about his mother. What if she falls right after his daily call and no one knows she’s injured till he calls the next day? What if she takes the car out and has an accident or can’t find her way home? Rachel lives closer and visits often—but she and her mother are often at odds, and she’s never been able to persuade Elaine to do anything.
Michael bears a terrible burden. Soon he will have to deliver an ultimatum. He will close up the house and prepare it for sale. He will take his mother east and place her in assisted living near his home, where he’ll see her often. She will be clean and safe. No one will be happy about this, yet none of us can think of a better solution.
Last year when we were together, Elaine said something that made Michael laugh. “Why are you laughing?” she asked him. I answered for Mike as my eyes met his, “So he doesn’t cry.”
I’ve thought about what I’d do if I found myself elderly and widowed like Elaine. I hope I would handle it better; I have a sort of plan. I’ve considered moving back to Wisconsin where I grew up, and I could stay in Cincinnati where I am, but I’d most likely move to Seattle, where my son resides. I’d find an appropriate senior housing arrangement and check myself in. My son and I would have our own lives, but he’d be nearby in case of emergency. He wouldn’t have Michael’s logistical worries.
Sometimes I wonder how quickly that time is coming. Maybe I’m just feeling symptoms of stress. I’m scrambling to market my book, my cat just died, and there’s Elaine’s situation simmering on the back burner. But every so often now, when I start to say or do something, I experience a glitch. For a few seconds I hang in limbo, and then I feel a palpable click as the mental gears catch again. Is this just stress or the start of something bigger?
If my turn comes, I hope I remember what I just wrote. As I say so often to Mike and Rachel … if my turn comes, I hope I’ll know.