In-Your-Face Aging

I’ve been thinking more about what I wrote here last week (Old Wounds Die Hard), and the feeling that I’m living crown-over-slippers in the Cinderella syndrome. My mother doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate my contribution to her living. Why is that?

Well, I’ve had an epiphany. Living close to an old-old has heightened my awareness of my own immortality. The day will come when I can no longer do what I can do now, and that’s a bit of a freak out; like being the ghost of Christmas future. But what of my mother? She has my youth in her face day in and day out, reminding her of what she can no longer do; the ghost of Christmas past.

I watch my own children in the prime of their lives—raising children, boundless energy for friends and activities, and home improvement without fear of back injury and knee pain; a whole future ahead of them—and I understand a bit what my mother sees. But, unlike me, she has nothing ahead.

I ran across some information online about “emotional dysfunction” and “cognitive dysfunction.” For those of us caring for an old-old, it’s helpful to understand the difference.

My mother suffers from emotional dysfunction. And though it hurts my ego, it’s a pattern I’m familiar with, and it’s not going to change. As our parents age, it’s likely their emotional functioning will become more of what it has always been.

Cognitive dysfunction is another rabbit, and is new to all of us. It demands a new kind of response, and it’s not going to be perfected overnight. The only way to deal with it is to take it as it comes. And just when I figure it out, it changes again. How do I deal with that? Imperfectly. I make mistakes, which pushes her familiar emotional dysfunction buttons and my childhood outrage buttons and we go into battle mode. And then we forgive each other and ourselves and move on.

My mother’s frustration with old age doesn’t manifest in anger often—she is not a person given to emotions, remember? But she is angry, she must be. Her body is failing her. She can’t see, or hear, or depend on “normal” bowel function. She can’t dig in the dirt or change a light bulb or cook her own dinner. It’s outrageous! And here I am: young, active, capable. And in her face day in and day out, reminding her of days long gone, never to return. Reminding her of all she can’t do. Maybe even doing it better than she ever did it. Is she proud of me? Damn straight she is. Will she tell me? Never. Why? Lifelong emotional dysfunction. I’m beginning to see how this works.

It’s her emotional dysfunction, not her cognitive dysfunction, that pushes my buttons. I can, and am, helping her cope with the cognitive dysfunction. That she doesn’t seem to appreciate my efforts is her emotional dysfunction. And I can’t change that.

Like a child who acts out at home, but not at daycare, or an adolescent who holds it all together at school, but is alternately sullen and outraged at home, the frustrated and fearful elder lashes out at caregivers. They feel safe to let down their guard with the person closest to them. Is it appropriate? No. Is it okay? No. Is about the caregiver? No. Is it crazy-making? Yes. Is there anything to be done about it? Was there anything to be done about the toddler or the teen? It ended when they outgrew it. My mother’s will end when she dies. But I can learn to cope with it.

Time away. I realized before I started this gig that my life still needed to be about me. I’ve been here three and a half years now, and I have clung steadfastly to that resolve. My mother has occasionally challenged it, thinking I’m not earning my room and board. I take trips (but not guilt trips), I have a regular day away each week, I have coffee with friends, I spend time with my grandson (and miss the far away ones). And I have been known to assure my mother that I am earning my keep; and much, much more.

Get help. A few months after my arrival, when I realized this was not going to be the one year commitment I made, but that it would be until, well, the end of time—her time, hopefully not mine—we hired help. We are lucky she has the resources for that, my sisters and I certainly do not; but there are also volunteers and seniors’ programs, one only need look. And the parent doesn’t have to like it. I didn’t agree to “do it all,” and I’m not going to. I’m just not.

Engage in and take time for interests. Whatever they might be. Stay relevant to yourself. Follow your curiosities. You won’t get this time back.

Let go of expectations. I came here thinking there would be emotional recovery. Maybe it happens for some parents and adult children, but I think it’s most unlikely, and then only if the parent is deeply sunk into dementia. We don’t change our spots; certainly not in old age. Lose the glass slippers and pull out the hip waders, there is deep shit ahead. And put blinders on that tiara.

My mother depends on me now, like I used to depend on her. It’s a radical change. And I do just about everything wrong. It’s how it is. And, of course, it’s not how it is. It’s her circumstances that are wrong, not me; it’s her circumstances she is angry at, not me. We are doing well enough, my friends. And even Cinderella got her paradise in the end.

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13 thoughts on “In-Your-Face Aging

  1. I appreciate what you feel, what you do and what you write…you do all of that for all of us, in many ways! Huge thanks for the demonstration!

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  2. Hi Gretchen – Congratulations on being able to see the separation between emotional and cognitive dysfunction! I struggle with this constantly. My mother was diagnosed with a personality disorder several years ago, which was very helpful for me. It took away some of my guilt as a daughter for never being enough. You are remarkable to me because you are living with your mother.

    You asked how I found you. I am 67, newly retired, started a new part time business and am taking classes at the local university in creative nonfiction writing. I’ve just started a blogging class and was surfing blogs to become familiar with blogs. I can’t remember what word I typed into the WordPress search engine, but I saw your blog. I as I read, I was impressed with both your writing and your honesty. Your subject resonates with me and probably many others. Caring for an elderly parent is a challenge, but when emotional illness is part of the mix, it’s like climbing a mountain without the appropriate gear. I’m glad you are taking care of yourself; your mother is lucky to have you. Mary

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    • Mary, I don’t know if you will see this comment, 10 months later. Somehow I missed acknowledging what you wrote. I wonder if you are still reading my Daughter on Duty blog. And mostly I wonder if you started your own blog. If you see this, let me know! Gretchen

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      • Yes, I read everything you send and often write a response. It is a most wonderful experience and I am always grateful for your clarity and generosity!

        But…I think you meant this for someone else perhaps 😌

        Hugs Mary lou

        ‘..Sing Because this is a food Our starving world Needs..’ Poem by Hafiz, 14th century sufi master

        You know what music is? God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, everywhere, even the stars. Robin Williams fm Sara Hickman newsletter 8/14

        So if you want to, sing it loud with love With love in your heart, because you like to, because you need to Radio City by Esperanza Spalding, jazz artist extraordinaire

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  3. Sending love and total support for you to keep claiming and living your own life. Such important self care. Thanks for sharing your stories. xoxo.

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  4. Gretchen – Once again thank you for sharing your vulnerability and your learning with us – this distinction between emotional and cognitive dysfunction is something I have been struggling with in my own relationship with my mother, but I didn’t have the words to describe or make sense of it. I hope this new awareness will help reduce the sting of the emotional zingers (for both of us). I also applaud your efforts to be intentional about how you are living your life, rather than putting it on hold for however long your mother is still alive. Blessings to you and lots of virtual hugs! Jude

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    • I hope it helps, Jude. I hope it helps me, too! My guess is that sometimes it will help and other times I will forget and get dragged into the rabbit hole. There is no magic wand, but I figure every new bit of understanding shifts the ratio between the two. Thank you always for your words of support. I am here supporting you, too.

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  5. Insightful and spot on, per usual. I remember moments of wistfulness from my dad when I was getting to go out and do things and he could not, and occasionally my mom will say, “Why do you get to do that [and I don’t]?” about something that of course she can no longer do. I am lucky that they never got angry or resentful, though. Maybe this is one advantage for seniors living in a community of people limited just like them, without the youngsters like us in their face….the dark side of aging in place. And also points to the need as a society to always have a way for seniors to offer what they still can….stories, wisdom, perspective.

    You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you this, but what you are doing to live your own life is absolutely right and good. In my moments of guilt for not sitting beside my mom all day (like she would prefer), I always say the same thing….I won’t get this day back. She had her 50s to do what she wanted (even if she doesn’t remember that)…I deserve the same.

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    • “…advantage for seniors living in community…” I had almost those exact words in this post, then decided it went with something else I might write next week that did not go in this post; so I cut it and put it in my parking lot. But it also went with this post! A writing dilemma.

      My mother still had two children at home in her 50s. Then, after a few years break—when she was my age—she began caring for her mother; though not as up close and personal as I am doing, to her everlasting guilt.

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  6. Ah, Cinderella. She got what she expected paradise to be, but it was only the end of the old story. We don’t have the new story. It might not have been paradise after all. Maybe we all need to hold on to hope, but let expectations go.

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