You might know, if you read my last post, that I’m home in New Brunswick for the next while, visiting my Mum. As I sit in Mum’s kitchen this morning pondering how to begin this post, I keep thinking of that Hilary Clinton book It Takes a Village. Because I’ve been saying all week to my mum that it takes a village to care for us, not just when we’re young, but when we get old as well.
When we’re young, most of us have parents, extended family if we’re lucky, teachers, family doctors, and even the guy who drives the school bus to care for us. It takes a community of people to help children to grow and learn, and be safe and happy.
The picture below is of my grandfather and grandmother Sullivan and most of their family. It was taken sometime in the nineteen-thirties when there were still two more sons to come, plus twins who died in infancy. That’s my mum nestled up beside Grammy, with the cheeky grin on her face. I always smile when I look at this picture. At how my grandfather’s hair looks as if it has a life of its own. At how my uncle Pius Jr. (who we all called Buddy) standing in front of Grampy, in his rubber boots, with his hands clenched into fists, looks like he stepped out of an episode of “Spanky and Our Gang.”
You’d certainly need a village to raise this brood: extended family, older siblings looking after younger ones, neighbours, even the town cop. I remember Mum telling me the story of her weekend job at the Rainbow Diner during high school, how she got off work at midnight, and had to run all the way home to get there before they turned the streetlights out. How the town cop had to climb the tall pole in front of the Catholic Church to throw the switch. And how he’d always wait for her, hear her running footsteps, and then watch to see that she made it home safely before he put out the lights. I love that story.
I think we all accept that it takes a whole wack of people to care for the young. But, you know, I think we too easily forget that it takes a village to care for us when we get old. As the independence so hard won when we were growing up begins to fall away, we need more and more help. And sometimes, these days, that help is hard to find, hard to find the people to fill all the roles that need filling, and hard to then make all the pieces work together.
That’s what we’ve been doing this week… well, me actually… trying to make all the pieces work together for Mum. And it’s been frustrating and labourious. Phone calls, appointments, more phone calls, and talking, talking, talking. I want mum to be safe and healthy, to be able to stay in her home, and to have some pleasure in her life. But for that to happen she needs help, more help as time marches on, of course.
I’ve used my “teacher voice” more times in the past week than I have in years. That’s the cheerfully aggressive voice I employed at school when I had to deal with a recalcitrant student or an overbearing parent. Big smile, make my point, don’t give in, try not to alienate anyone. As a typical youngest child, cheerfulness comes naturally to me; smiling, dancing, waving my arms, entertaining all the grown-ups is my default role. But tenacity, implacably holding my ground, being assertive, telling people what they don’t want to hear, or don’t agree with, not so much. In fact it’s exhausting.
But we’ve made progress. We’ve ironed out some issues, hopefully. I’ve spoken to the social worker from the government (finally.) We have an appointment for the nurse from the home-care agency to visit us and discuss Mum’s changing needs. We’ve been to the doctor, organized some physiotherapy for next week so she can begin to gain back some strength, arranged to go see about a hearing aid (hallelujah). And in between we’ve been to the pharmacy, to the grocery store a few times, stocking up her cupboard, making nutritious meals each night with extra portions so we can restock her freezer with frozen meals. And… perhaps most importantly… we’ve been to see Gus at his bookstore and she now has a raft of reading material.
Of course the whole week hasn’t been fraught and frustrating. The weather has been beautiful and I’ve been able to walk the trail along the river on several days. Mum and I have watched the entire 1995 Pride and Prejudice series we love. Although one night we overdid it, watched three episodes, and Mum was so tired that she was shaking as she wobbled her way to bed. I keep forgetting that she’s ninety-one, and frankly, so does she.
This morning as Mum and I were talking over our breakfast tea, and later while we did laundry, and changed beds, and redecorated her bedroom a little, we reminisced. As we are wont to do. And we talked about the whole idea of caring for the elderly. About Mrs. Sims, an old lady who lived alone in Mum’s neighbourhood when she was a kid. When Mum was about thirteen, she helped Mrs. Sims on Saturdays doing housework, dusting, and whatever else needed doing. And my uncle Buddy, a year younger than Mum, was charged with visiting Mrs. Sims every morning before school in the winter to stoke and light her furnace. Do kids still do that, take on odd jobs to help out seniors in their community?
Uncle Buddy was always good at helping out. I remember the year my step-father died, he did all kinds of stuff around the old farmhouse for Mum. We still laugh about the time he arrived at eight in the morning to take the storm windows off in the old cellar, and put on the screens. The tea pot was hot, and the home made doughnuts were fresh from the day before. We sat drinking tea, eating doughnuts, and listening to Uncle Buddy’s stories until at least ten-thirty. He could talk the leg off an iron pot, as my grandmother used to say. All the time smoking furiously, so that by the time he decamped to do what he came to do, the kitchen was a fug of cigarette smoke.
Uncle Buddy’s gone now. He died while Hubby and I were away in France in 2015. All Mum’s brothers and sisters are gone, except a much younger brother who lives far away. So many important people in her life: her favourite cousins, old friends, even younger friends, and now my brother are all gone. But Mum soldiers on.
And I think it’s my job to make sure that Mum has a village to help her soldier on. If we can just get all the moving parts of her life to work together, get everyone who is charged with a task to do it, and do it the way we agreed, and in a manner that is best for her… well… that would be wonderful.
I’m sure many of you are in the same position as me, trying to help manage the moving parts of someone else’s life from afar, trying to get as much done as you can when you visit and hope the pieces don’t fall apart when you go home, trying to be helpful and do what needs to be done without taking over completely. Because I want to be very clear about one thing, Mum is still master of her own life. She doesn’t need to be “looked after”… she looks after herself.
She just needs some help.
Now, it’s very late. I’ve been writing this post off and on since this morning. Right now I’m tucked up in bed, still typing. I can hear the wind blowing against the side of the house… makes me feel sleepy and cosy. I should probably finish this and turn out the light. Thanks, as always, for listening.