Image by Sailing "Footprints: Real to Reel" (Ronn ashore) via FlickrI stood at the door of the men's washroom in the specialists office yesterday, waiting for my Dad to come out. We were there for his quarterly checkup, and Dad had to go to the washroom. It's not that he can't go to the washroom by himself. Actually, it IS that he can't go to the washroom by himself. Not at the doctor's office. Because every time he comes out the door, he gets lost. The first time it happened, another man found him wandering down the stairs. It scared the heck out of me. So now, every time he has to go, I wait by the door so I can walk back to the waiting area with him.
Yesterday was like any other visit, except for the fact that I suddenly realized how I've become somewhat of a caregiver to my parents whenever I am there. My father is in a care facility because he has Alzheimer's and my stepmother lives in a townhouse, blind as a bat with a bum heart, a pacemaker, recovering from two broken hips. I travel over at least once a month to spend two or three days, to help out wherever it is needed. My sister interacts with them more regularly and deals with more than I do because she lives closer. And between the two of us, we have become their support system. They have friends who help out as well, but the main part of it is up to the two of us.
It speaks to that reversal of roles that happens once parents become elderly, and I guess the whole transition happened gradually. But it started to change about six or seven years ago when my stepmother had to have open heart surgery and my father thought she was going to die. I traveled to the mainland to provide support for my Dad during my stepmother's surgery and recovery. He was confused about her condition, and that confusion eventually lead to the diagnosis of dementia, "probably" Alzheimer's. My stepmother recovered from her heart surgery, but one thing after another kept happening; first one broken hip, then the other, then a diagnosis of macular degeneration which slowly blinded her, then a pacemaker, then a hernia operation. And my father's dementia was eventually accompanied by kidney disease and prostate cancer.
I found myself going over quite often at first, every two or three weeks as my stepmother recovered. I kept thinking it was only temporary, but as they both began to struggle through their various physical ailments, I eventually came to realize that traveling there was just going to become part of my routine. And so it has.
When my father came out of the washroom at the doctor's office and we sat down in the waiting area, I watched an elderly woman come out of the office and prepare herself to leave the building. She sat down carefully, placing her cane beside her, and gingerly fingered her purse, looking for the zipper. It took her awhile to find it, her fingers shaking slightly at the exertion, but when she did, it took her another while to feel and see what she was looking for. It was a change purse, and she was likely trying to set aside change for the bus. She had to count through the change several times to make sure she had it right. Then she began the process of putting her change purse back where she could find it, and slowly zipped up her purse. When that was finally done, she fumbled for her cane, and eventually was able to lift herself up out of the chair. Then it was the slow, careful walk to the elevator.
I looked at her and marveled at how much this old woman was doing for herself, how even though it took her so much time and patience, she managed to get herself to and from an appointment in downtown Vancouver. Who knows how far she had to come and how early in the morning she had to get herself going JUST to GET there. In the last few years, watching my parents grow older and more dependent on us, I've found an appreciation for just how much work it takes to be old. I looked at the elderly lady again and saw myself some day. I hope.