There was a cabaret song much celebrated in Romania before World War II. They say soldiers listened to it in the trenches before the attack: a love song about a beautiful Gypsy woman called Zaraza.
A few years ago, I found the song online and downloaded it to iTunes. At the time, my father was already a very old man suffering from dementia and living in a group home. I visited him every day and, once a week, I brought him to our house for dinner. He was thoroughly mellowed by the medications administered to him on a daily basis and while he still recognized my wife and me and rewarded us with grateful smiles, he did not always remember our names. During dinner, he was mostly absent. That day, Zaraza sounded through my speakers. I didn’t select it deliberately — the songs played at random. My father stopped eating, his body tensed, his face opened up and he started humming. Soon, he was singing along, words coming to him without effort. He was clearly happy, but as soon as the song ended, he retreated into his silent and impenetrable world. Several months later he died. Every time I remember that evening, I am thankful the song gave me, for a brief moment, my dad back.
We use the expression ‘the sandwich generation.’ It refers to people like us, who care for our growing children while our aging parents also need our help, with little or no breathing space in between. This happened to me with my father. It happened to my wife with both her parents and it happened to many of our friends. The moment one recognizes this predicament, it hits you with a tumult of feelings, good and bad. It’s a difficult moment, intensely personal and revealing. Where does one start? Wherever, because there is no choice.
The process — and it is a process that only gets worse — turns the love for our parents into an obligation mixed with self-doubt. There are many sad episodes and very few funny ones. One both sad and amusing story I remember is from the time I was a teenager. My parents and I were visiting friends, who, as it was common in those times, had an old parent at home. He sat in the living room, on an armchair, drooling a little and totally uninvolved. Except at one point, when, for no apparent reason whatsoever, he straightened himself up in his chair, his eyes flashed, and he uttered loudly: Boo! Then he fell silent again. I laughed, not realizing the utter sadness of the moment.
My wife remembers a caregiver in her fifties, at the retirement facility where her parents lived. After a particularly difficult day with her parents, my wife commented to the caregiver that it must be hard working there. “It is,” the caregiver said, “and I see my future clearly every day.”
While tending to our parents, we rarely think about our future, when we will be them. Even if we think about it logically, we don’t feel it.
There is an essential difference between caring for children and caring for parents. With my children, I saw the future. They grew. They became self-sufficient adults. Talking to them, admiring their perfect bodies and touching their velvet skin, listening to them and witnessing their minds develop were my greatest rewards. Caring for them was instinctive. It was pure love. With old people, everything seems in vain. There is love and an overwhelming sense of obligation, which turns love into something else. One knows that whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and there is only one possible outcome. We don’t want it and when the end comes, it hits us like a ton of bricks. We should feel free and a sense of relief in the end of our parents’ suffering, but we don’t. Why? Because we feel guilty.
While I cared for my parents, I regretted missing the opportunity to do something else instead. When I minimized my sacrifice, I feared the criticism and judgement of others for not doing enough. If I did more, I felt underappreciated by my parents.
Some old people, while they still have their wits about them, are uncannily able of playing us, making us feel ungrateful.
In our community of immigrants, I have friends who face an additional dilemma: their parents live abroad, in the country they came from. My friends can visit for a couple of weeks, send money for their medical needs and for hard to find in home help. Nursing homes in Romania are inadequate. Parents die at home, cared for by paid helpers, and their adult children in the US suffer pain and guilt from afar.
We often talk about the need to maintain old people’s dignity. It’s a hard call. Loss of memory, dementia, tremors, diapers. The inability to ingest anything that’s not mush. Loose skin and liver spots. Lack of endurance and strength. In our minds, we contrast the person in front of us with the one we remember from not so long ago: vigorous people who took care of us, our heroes, our models in life. That is, of course, provided our parents were good parents, and not abusive or negligent, so that we couldn’t wait to escape. And now? Now we deal with decline and decay, and we talk, sadly, about dignity.
I dislike the hypocrisy of the names all nursing homes and retirement communities take: Sunshine, Paradise, Vantage, Golden Hill, The Next Morning and so on. Who are we fooling? Why not call them what they are? The last stop.
And finally, there is the cost. Thousands of dollars a month, month after month. You have to watch the people who work there like a hawk. The doctors don’t seem to care — they’ve seen it before. The nurses and the therapists are tired, quickly moving from patient to patient. Your mother and father are just a job. Maybe the people working in hospice care are different — they have a well-defined purpose. They are the end.
Well, I got it off my chest. Trust me, I didn’t say all this to get you sad or upset. I’m not angry at you; I’m simply scared by the senselessness of it all.
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