For those that follow this opinion column, you read that several weeks ago that my aging parents were dealing with the ravages of getting old — and living through it. Major heart surgery saved my mom’s life.
Because of advancements in medicine, we can live longer. But while medicine has enhanced our potential for age, medicine hasn’t necessarily enhanced — and really can’t enhance — our potential for aging gracefully.
Mom had her aortic heart valve replaced in June. At 85 years old, she survived the surgery that sliced into her chest, cracked and spread open her rib cage, and opened her heart. She had mobility issues before the surgery, enduring bad knees and hips for years. She has diabetes. She has reduced kidney functioning and she has COPD from years of smoking (given up 30 years ago but the damage was done).
She would have died in days without the heart surgery. The surgery prolonged her life who knows how many years. With her aortic heart valve replaced, she has a heart functioning at 20 years her junior.
And then she had a post-surgical stroke that could have been far worse but nonetheless has afflicted the right side of her body. Her right arm “won’t obey her” as she puts it and neither will her right leg. She reluctantly uses a walker now — “an old person’s crutch,” she says.
It’s funny how one’s chronological perspective doesn’t change with age. Mom’s 85 and in her eyes she’s not yet old.
So my 89-year-old dad, a blessing in many ways, not the least of which is that he has become my mom’s arms and legs, has become her primary care-giver. But they live in a home not set up for elder “care-giving.” There are stairs. The laundry is in the basement. There is an old bathroom with a bath tub (no shower head) and low toilets and sinks that are not conducive to supporting the needs of people with disabilities.
I sent my dad an ad for one of those walk-in bath tubs they advertise in AARP and in veteran’s magazines. He turned his nose up at it. “Too expensive to install,” he says.
I was not really surprised that he would think this after all. Dad and Mom are part of what newscaster and author Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation.” Both Mom and Dad survived and then thrived following the Great Depression. They became accustomed to getting by with what they had. Dad, too, is one of a quickly declining number of World War II veterans who dealt with thrift and doing without his whole life.
Luckily, Mom’s recovery has been nothing short of miraculous. Even with her compound medical problems, except for a scar that peeks out of her blouse just below her neck, a need for some supplemental oxygen time to time still, and her right leg and arm that won’t “obey her” to the degree she would like, she is her ornery old self.
Still, in their children’s eyes, both Mom and Dad would do better if the house in which they were living were designed with walker-accommodating spaces, bathrooms set up for those with disabilities and an upstairs laundry. They can afford it and we would do it for them if they couldn’t.
But both frustratingly and blessedly, this isn’t going to happen. Frustratingly, my mom and dad have strong opinions. They aren’t going to let their kids — or anybody else for that matter — run their lives. Blessedly, my mom and dad have strong opinions and aren’t going to let their kids run their lives.
They attend to their personal needs and get up and go every day. On their daily shopping forays — a great joy to them both — Mom drags herself into their van by stepping up on a rickety, old step stool Dad places near the passenger door, pulling herself into her seat using her left “good” arm with Dad’s help. Exiting the van, Dad fetches her walker from the back seat and positions it so Mom can brace herself on it sliding out of the van.
Dad is still a good driver. If he wasn’t, finding a way to get the keys from him would be difficult — at best — for both Mom and Dad and their kids. But as my dad always said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” I’m glad we haven’t come to that bridge yet.
So Mom and Dad, even with the ravages of old age, chancy surgery and sometimes incomprehensible stubbornness, frugally survive with what they have as they have done their whole lives. So, as a matter of fact — at least for now — they may actually have “graceful aging” down to a science regardless of what their kids think.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.