Moving On by Moving AroundPosted on June 19, 2014 by ECR Louisville in Blog, Caregiver Education
Caregiving is a delicate dance, with a gradual shift in who is leading and who is following. One partner is, often, a frail, widowed mother, upended by the loss of her husband and living in the family home, too big, costly and difficult to maintain.
A dear old friend fits that profile: Stooped and finally reconciled to a walker, she grieves a husband lost to Alzheimer’s disease while ensconced in a dated four-bedroom house atop a canyon in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. I’ve begged her to move more times than I can count, and surely more times than she wanted to hear.
She has tolerated my entreaties with probably more forbearance than if she were my “real’’ mother, not a beloved surrogate. Her mind is clear, her will strong, and her way of making decisions — slow and steady — has always worked for her. So she’s held her ground.
Along the way, she has taught me two lessons.
– Know when to butt out, because you’re not always right.
Move the furniture.
The latter is useful shorthand, like “shift your weight’’ when you get stuck in life. But it’s literal advice, too. Some will argue that rearranging the chairs is a superficial response to a deep problem. Lately I’m not so sure.
Up in the hills of Los Angeles, my elderly friend (I’m not going to name her, as I suspect her children might object) has succeeded in making changes to her home that have nothing to do with handicap accessibility (long ago done) and everything to do with emotional well-being.
On a recent visit, I was assigned the master bedroom rather than the small guest room. What’s not to like? A king-sized bed. Sliding doors to the patio. Only when the rest of the household was asleep did I permit myself tears.
I loved her late husband, also like a surrogate parent. His favorite books were on the shelves, his swimming goggles still on the edge of the sink. How could I possibly sleep in their bed? And if I couldn’t, I realized during my first fitful night, how could she?
So she’d moved down the hall, to the narrow bed in the guest room where I’d slept so many times. Now the room had an easy chair and ottoman, piled with the books and magazines she was reading. The desk was reorganized so she could do her bookkeeping. The closet held her clothes. The walls were hung with pictures from her life, including a poster from her college reunion: Tufts, class of 1947.
Elsewhere in the house, I found, the changes were less dramatic but numerous. The living room had always been used less than the family room. Now the furniture in the two had been reversed. The “nicer” couch, formerly in the living room, now was enjoyed daily, not just once in a blue moon. It looked brand new, its leather unscuffed, and it was set at a fashionable angle rather than up against the wall.
In front of it, a huge glass coffee table, also from the living room, replaced the narrow wood-slatted one that had been there before.
The dining room table was laid with rush place mats, nothing fancy but a freshening touch. In the kitchen, new appliances gleamed in economical white rather than pricy stainless steel. A new filter basket to make coffee was metal mesh rather than stained plastic. The silverware drawers had been rearranged. Cookies and cereal were stored where pots used to be, and vice versa.
As a longtime guest, it took some getting used to, and I fumbled to find things. Still, I came to marvel at her good sense. Most of these changes were less dramatic than the bedroom switch, I realized, but all in service of the same principle: Not to forget a dead husband, but to remember and move forward at the same time.
My first morning there, I screwed up my courage to tell her how wrenching it had been to sleep in “their” bed. And how disconcerting to find so much in the house changed.
“I have to go on,” she told me. “It will never be the same, and I don’t want it to be, but I need reminders that this is my life now, physical reminders, and all this helps.”
And so I have learned yet another thing from her: To be more humble giving advice to the elderly about their homes, and to keep my big mouth closed unless and until I see they’re at risk.
It’s a lesson that doesn’t come naturally.
Before leaving, I observed that a trellis attached to the house was rotting. “Find out if it’s termites,’’ I told her, “and if the exterminator can’t totally get rid of them, tear it down before they find their way into the house.’’
But since then, despite high temperatures and high winds in Southern California — fire weather in the canyons — I’ve resisted calling to say, as I have so many times before, that it’s not safe to be in a house with a shake roof.
She’s doing fine figuring things out on her own.
About The Author:
The New York TimesBy JANE GROSS
Jane Gross is The New Old Age’s founding blogger and author of“A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves” (Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage).