Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Denying mortality. Or, the nightmare of unplanned elder care.

This is Essay #21 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

[I'm taking a small break from the Tizon tizzy. There is also the matter of the recent martial law declaration in the Philippine island of Mindanao, which is getting me worked up too. More on these things later. I need to clear my head. In the meantime, there is this.]


How do you write about growing old? How do you write about coming to terms with your own mortality when your parents are in denial of theirs? How do you fucking write about any of it?

You find yourself sitting in the school auditorium on a Saturday night, waiting for the play to begin. There is loud chatter between parents, the mad dash of younger kids trying to play tag between the metal folding chairs. This is the first play for your oldest and, you suspect, not the last. Your mother leans over and asks about the rest of the visit from your in-laws. You pause and consider what to tell her.

Your in-laws are elderly and in the past year or so, their mental health has declined at a rapid rate. Unfortunately, due to said mental health decline, they are unaware of this and continue to live their day-to-day lives as they always have, believing things are the same as they ever were. Never mind that he got lost coming home from the fitness center that is five minutes away –a drive that he’s done for the past twenty-five years-- and it took him three hours to find his way back. Never mind that she asks the same question three times in a span of five minutes. (As you write this, you can already hear Hubs telling you that you are exaggerating about his mother, that you are blowing things out of proportion. Perhaps. But if you are, there is a point to be made: they are not fit to live independently any longer. And we are all in agreement on that.)

It seems your in-laws have not put an aging plan into place. (Whether this is an actual term has yet to be determined, but the basic concept is there.) It is safe to say that they presumed there was no need for such a plan, in which they specify instructions for their care. Perhaps they imagined they would simply pass away in their sleep. No physical complications. No mental health issues. Nothing. Just: one day you’re here; the next: you’re asleep forever. Ha. If only it were that simple for everyone.

You will not go into detail about the difficult struggles Hubs and his siblings have endured this past year, more intensely over the last week or so… or about the emotional labor and exhaustion this has brought on. It is too overwhelming. You can only pay attention, taking mental notes for when your own parents come to this threshold.

Amid the echo of chatter in the auditorium, you try to tell your mother that things are bad. Really bad. But the noise it too loud for you to go in depth about it. You tell her that they need a plan, that they need to figure out what they’re going to do when they’re elderly. She shrugs it off as if to say: No, I don’t. We don’t need a plan. But you insist: Yes, you do. Because we are not going to go through what they are going through right now. You stop short of threatening to abandon them. This needs a more delicate touch.

You know your parents pretty well. You especially know how stubborn your father is. Not “can be”, but “IS”. He is convinced that he will live forever and in perfect health. He has the vitamins and supplements to prove it. But vitamins can’t protect from everything, like, say, car accidents.

But how do you communicate this to people who are set in their ways (which are most of us)? How do you tell them that you’ve seen firsthand the kind of grief that puts love to the test? That you don’t want to go through that test if you don’t have to. That a plan will help in some way. That a plan will demonstrate their love for you – that they are thinking of you instead of themselves, a true act of love.

You have no idea.

But you have to try. Try something. Try everything.

Life is unpredictable, but most of us live as if it weren't. Most of us live asleep, on auto-pilot. And while it’s not possible to prepare for every scenario, something needs to be in place, especially when it comes to elder care. And that something needs to be put in place now, when all mental faculties are running at full capacity.

And with that, you begin to write down what you’re witnessing with your in-laws, hoping that your own parents will see how necessary an aging plan is.

And then pray.

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