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TerryRoars

Friday, November 06, 2009

Life, Death and Prep Time: Don't Leave Us in the Dark

[Sorry to be morose and just a little bittersweet on a Friday, but I've got to get some heavy stuff off my chest.]

Life is a road all living beings must travel. It has lots of twists and turns, hills and valleys, starts and stops. One thing we all understand is it's inevitable rise and fall from young to old, birth to death. This is fundamental, and we believe we all have a pretty good grasp of this profound concept. Right?

As a generation, I suppose that we Boomers are at that stage now where we've crested the hill, and upon coasting down the other side we realize we will have to adjust our thinking. We spent the beginning part of our lives assuming there was more to come, higher places to reach for, bigger and better things would be just around the bend. But, there's plenty of time to adjust to that easy glide down the slope of life ... lots of time to plan a grand exit!

However, one of the big ideas that can jerk us back into reality is when we find out that our parents are mere mortals and will not live on forever. We are quite often thrust into the position of being parents to our parents without so much as a by-your-leave! One minute, they are sailing along in life happy as clams, having reached summits we can only hope we'll be able to surpass some day, and the next moment a doctor's diagnosis or a sudden injury takes away all that makes them who they are in our eyes.

Just like that! Snap, the lights go dim, and we are left standing in the dark–lurching ahead on a road with no headlights to light the way.

I've noticed that this is a much harder role to take on than that of parent to our own children. That task we did willingly and with some forethought and planning; it was hard, and as expected, it was the most rewarding challenge of our lives. But we had been prepared for it. This other new role–parenting our parents–is not one in which we were even asked about. To be perfectly frank, we thought they had that covered! They spoke of long term care insurance, social security, Medicare, investments, payed off mortgages, travel plans, retirement accounts, etc, etc. But, they really hadn't thought out all the fine points, and that financial part is only the beginning.

For instance;
No one told us that when our very independent, unmarried father got cancer and immediately chose to operate aggressively, that someone was going to have to take care of him while he was in a coma, and thereafter until he passed 18 months later!

No one prepared us for the downward spiral our mom's life would take after two falls resulted in traumatic brain injuries that unalterably changed her ability to care for herself, changed her personality, and erased she and her husbands' future retirement plans forever.

No one told my sister and her husband that both his parents would begin to slide into that foggy world of Alzheimer's and succumb to the disease–nearly in tandem.

No one told my sister how heart-wrenching it would be to know that her dad was dealing with horrific, debilitating cancer pain, while she was thousands of miles away, waiting for the moment she would be called to be with him for his last breaths.

No one ever hinted to my husband and his family that the very pillar and strength of the family, his mom, would very suddenly slip into a depression so fast and so deep that she would attempt to take her own life before anyone ever realized what was happening.

And no one prepared us for the fact that these events would all happen in a shortened span of just a few years; piling one stressful event on top of the other--sometimes making us choose which parent needed us most in that moment.

This has been a road we had definitely not planned for. I think we all had vague notions of the parents going on until they were in their 90's, perhaps having moved into some sort of retirement living community that would miraculously take care of all their needs ... all with no need for interference from us kids.

But as they say, "denial is not just a river in Egypt." The fact is, our bodies are fragile. We are brought up upon the notion that we will always be able to make our own decisions and care for our own fundamental needs even as we become infirm with age. This is not the case. As we have learned through recent experiences, we can't assume that every detail will fall into place as envisioned.

There are some very important discussions that couples should have, between themselves, as well as with their grown children and siblings.

Not just questions of who gets Mom's alabaster elephant, or Dad's old heirloom shotgun. More importantly, is there a living will, or last will and testament? Have you prepared a trust? Who becomes your agent of record if you can't make decisions for yourself? What type of care do you want if you can no longer care for yourself? Will it be OK with you if we have to sell your home and move you to assisted living or a nursing home in order to pay for the costs? Or, are you going to insist on staying in your own home until you take your last breath? Do you assume one of your family members will drop everything and care for you 24/7, or will you accept a paid, live-in caregiver? Will you understand when all your friends abandon you because they're too scared to see you now that you've "changed?" Do you have a funeral plan? Do you want to have your ashes spread in a favorite spot, or do you wish to be buried in the family plot? After you die, what do you want us to do with all your stuff?

In preparation for, and anticipation of your inevitable demise, write your wishes down. We hear it all the time, but it's so important. Every decision, every move, that your family and friends have to make on your behalf will be scrutinized, judged, and without a doubt, questioned if you haven't given express instructions about your care, your stuff, and your exit. It's hard enough for your loved ones to find out that you will be gone from their lives forever–don't compound it by leaving them in the dark! Profoundly speaking, the devil is in the details, and I'll be damned if I let this subject bedevil my family again!

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