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.
Walking trail along the Saint John River

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.


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31 thoughts on “Time Marches On and All That”

  1. I don’t know why but this brought tears to my eyes, probably because your writing is, as always so beautiful and it makes me think of days gone by. Also because I have been thinking a lot about Armistice Day and that awful war and finally I just watched a clip of the final scene of Blackadder goes forth when they came out of the trenches to their death. It was so poignant. I know you are doing your very best for your Mum and I hope the services will also do their best. People don’t help automatically any more like when we were young, unfortunately but hopefully you can get her the help she needs.

    1. Thanks, Jenny. Remembrance Day always makes me emotional as well. I'm not watching ANY of the coverage this year, though.That would be too much emotion. I'm hoping the efforts we've made this week pan out. Fingers crossed.

  2. We all have parents & the odds are they will need our help at the end of their lives . Not everyone steps up to the mark I’m afraid . Although normal , it is very hard , not least because it makes you so aware that one day it will be you feeling vulnerable & needing help . There is a plus side though . It gives you the opportunity to be close to your mum & share time in a busy world , which you will keep in your memories – along with all the other lovely tales you tell us . It reminds you to enjoy your own life too . Love the photo .
    Wendy in York

    1. Right on all counts, Wendy. I'm enjoying sharing Mum's and my shared passions. And at the same time, I'll feel glad to get back to my own life in a week or so. And I don't mind being the one stepping up to the mark. Makes me feel less like the "spoiled baby-sister" of the family. Ha.

  3. As you so wisely point out, your mother is still master of her own life and your efforts are to help her find assistance that will keep her in her home and in control of her life. Your teacher's voice is being put to good use. It is a wonderful gift you are providing; helping her sort out the services she needs. Just 5 minutes on the phone with a utilities provider, punching number after number, trying to get a live body on the line, is enough to send the sanest person into despair, much less trying to arrange home services that must be tailored to meet specific needs. Bravo to both of you for working together to find solutions–especially as village carers of the past are hard to find these days.

    1. Oh… those annoying, time-wasting phone calls. Who knew ordering cheques for Mum from her bank would be so incredibly labourious, so many steps, even though I am joint on her account. They eventually ordered the cheques for her, with her name and address on them, but would only mail them to my address in Ontario. Seriously annoying. As for home care, I eventually refused to try to solve the problems over the phone and insisted that the nurse/organizer pay us a visit…for, as I said in my best teacher voice, "a fulsome discussion." Let's hope it achieves what Mum needs.

  4. You could be echoing my troubled sentiments here. It takes a lot of people to care for the old and these days, that is not automatically something families can do. I know about three people who have remained in their home towns and who are close to their parents – most of us moved away for university or jobs or with spouses many, many years ago and so cannot be there to do the everyday tasks that make such a difference. Over here in the UK the social services are given a monumental task and have their budgets cut at the same time. And, it must be said, families do not always do as they maybe should, leaving things till it is too late, not having difficult conversations, turning a blind eye, all of which makes things very much harder than it needs to be. Something I have found particularly tricky is getting the old person to say EXACTLY what they want so plans can be made without getting into highly emotional arguments that, frankly, play every dirty trick in the book (on both sides). I have come to the conclusion that what a lot of very old, infirm and wandering people want is simple: they want their families to care for them. Impasse, from the practical point of view. What this has done is concentrate my mind very keenly on what I would like when I am aged and to find a way to manage it. Until then, I will continue (as the majority of families do) to do the best I can, according to my lights. I wish you all the good fortune in the world as you care for your mother. And her, too.

  5. I remember my mother doing the same things for her mother after her father (my grandfather) died and, as the years passed, her mother became elderly, her friends died and her community disappeared. Grandma, who lived about 200 miles from my mother, wanted to stay in the home and neighborhood in which she had lived since she, her husband and their two young children had moved to Seattle from the Upper Midwest, leaving all of their families and friends behind, over 50 years before. My mother's frequent trips to Seattle, where she spent days doing what my Grandma could not do, or could not do alone, and arranging for the increasing help that her mother needed between her visits, allowed Grandma to live in her home and neighborhood for fifteen years after Grandpa died. Although I was living far away much of that time, I knew and well remember that those trips were difficult and exhausting for my mother. Nonetheless, I would give a great deal to have had the opportunity to give that kind of support to my mother when she grew old enough to need it. I never did, as my mother died before growing old in any way and just as I was beginning to know her in her life after and beyond active mothering. And, as I face a suddenly-much-more-immediate possibility of becoming a widow myself, I am learning what an incredible gift the love and hands-on support of a child can be. Bless you, and bless your mother.

    1. Thanks, Leslie. I do hope your troubles resolve themselves in a positive way. When Stu, who is a decade older than me, was so unexpectedly diagnosed with heart disease I was given a taste of that. So, so difficult.

  6. A beautiful post, and you have my fond envy for still having your mother. I know this stage: the details they can let slip, the diplomacy, the constant vigilance from afar. I am reminded of a quote I read once, "The old need little, but they need that little so much."

  7. You come from good genes! I'm sure it must be so hard to live so far away from your mom, and then come back for a "visit" and organize so much, take on so much. It is a very rare person who makes it to 91, still mobile, living in their own home, taking care of themselves for the most part. Do kids still take on those types of responsibilities, like you described? Sadly, I think not. -Jenn

    1. There are so many jobs that need doing in order for a senior to remain in their home. For instance, the man who plows the snow in the driveway doesn't shovel the deck and ramp, so Mum has had to find someone else to do that for her, and some days just organizing all this and contacting people when she needs something done takes more effort than she is able to muster. Oh for a few thirteen year olds who want to work for pocket money.

  8. Watching a once vigorous parent decline in physical and sometimes emotional health can be a heart-wrenching process. The parent that once seemed a tower of strength now turns to children or other family members for assistance in daily tasks and those tasks take longer to accomplish. It is even more difficult when distance, especially long distances, can separate those who need assistance from those who may wish to give it but can't due to distance apart, work, young family commitments or monetary issues. Long ago parents relied on having large families to look after them as they aged…it isn't the case any more for many and government agencies need to step in to fill the gap. Whether they do it as well as family did in begone eras is debatable…still we try to find the best solutions to help aging relatives retain a sense of control and dignity. You are facing issues that so many of our generation are now facing…how to care for elderly parents as we wonder what our own future will be like as we ourselves age. Time waits for no man but your mother and you have the incredible gift of love and each other's best interests at heart. Cheers, Alayne

    1. I'm smiling ruefully as I read that last line, Alayne. Because while I've been bustling around getting groceries, and cooking large meals so I can stock Mum's freezer with 'heat and serve' meals for her for days when she has no homecare and she's too tired to make a meal… Mum has been watching and worrying that I'm "doing too much" and telling me to stop working, that we can just have a boiled egg for supper. Ha. And I've begun to realize that's probably what she tells her homecare worker and why she eats too many tea and toast dinners.

  9. Beautifully written and I love the photo at the end. Yes it's a difficult stage. Despite the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy, how fortunate that you can spend this time with your mum and that she can stay home with support. Enjoy the visit. Iris

  10. My feelings about this would fill a whole house, so I'll spare you the full complement;). Everybody's experiences are so different – some have lost parents, some have parents who are toxic, some have parents who are a burden, some have parents who refuse the care they need, some have parents willing to accept help, but all the childhood patterns raise their little hands. The only statement I feel comfortable making globally is that surely it's better to face the time of frail aging, when it comes to us, as honestly and authentically as we can. Eschew denial and manipulation and misplaced hostility and any outgrown formalities, if we can.

    1. I second that 'Amen,' Lisa. While I was writing this I was remembering your post a while ago about moving your mum and the frustrating detail of the door to the carehome that wouldn't stay open without triggering an alarm. Small things that can become big things in the moment. Like trying to help Mum out of my rental car the other day; she was trying to find something to hang onto to pull or push herself up, and I was trying to lean in to help her without pulling her arm out of its socket or throwing out my back. I'm so bad at that stuff!

    2. Another amen here, Lisa! So well said.

      Caring for my mother (who had Alzheimer's) for twelve years is the toughest job I ever had. This gig is especially hard on competitive, high-achievers. I spent my life gunning for straight As, but as Mother's caregiver I never felt I was breaking any curves, just barely keeping up.

      This is a part of life when you fully grok that it isn't a dress rehearsal, but the real show. And as a caregiver you don't even have a script. This phase of life involves situations, conversations, and decisions for which there are no legitimate models — just instincts.

      Ann in Missouri

  11. I can so identify! Dad is 95 and no longer able to care for himself. Thankfully, he lives in a good assisted living facility, but there are still many things that need to be taken care of and my siblings and I live a province away. Little things, like the broken bolt on his raised toilet seat last weekend, would be easy to take care of if one or more of us lived nearby, but instead it required a whole series of phone calls and arrangements. As you are finding, visits are filled with tasks, appointments, and making arrangements that pile up until one of us is there.

    1. Visits are always about getting jobs done, aren't they? And finding someone to do small things I can't do. Know anyone in Fredericton who can change a shower head?

  12. Longtime reader and appreciator of your fine writing I echo LPC’s comments, To face aging in a way that is authentic is a worthy goal. I’ve learned a lot about that gift that is being able to accept help graciously. Suffice it to say I will do my darndest to show grace and compassion to those who end up caring for me.

  13. Your Mum is a Superhero!
    If only all the people,government offices,nurses,care and help in one's own home,were just doing their jobs….world would be a much better place! I can completely understand your feelings while dealing with them and trying to make them doing their job properly
    You are so right about babies and villages and caring for our older ones….I was thinking about it constantly,reminding myself….
    It it difficult to be far away and worry…..but,I'm sure you're going to soldier them all so your mother could soldier on

  14. Oh, how this post resonates with me! When I was twenty-nine, pregnant with my second child, my husband abruptly left me (and the country), never to be seen again. (Forget child support, never happened.) I moved back in with my parents and have lived here ever since. As my parents aged, I was able to help more and more, not just financially, but with the work as well. My dad, especially, needed help with yard work as he grew older and was unable to keep up with it. He died fourteen years ago at age 84. My mother is now 93, and although she is mentally alert, physically she has many problems. I am so glad to be here with her (and one of my children is still here as well to help), cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, driving her to doctors' appointments, doing errands, all of that. I have been lectured by some people that I have "no life" and am wasting my potential (!) staying here, but really? My parents were wonderful to my sisters and me and I truly feel that it is a privilege to be able to take care of them. I love the picture of your mother and you talking and working together – when she is gone, these memories will be the best gift anyone could ever have. How wonderful that you have each other! (I am the youngest child, too, and I absolutely love your description of youngest children. So very true!!)

  15. Add another "amen" to LPC's comment. Looking ahead, as realistically as we can, is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves and those who are related to us.

    Also, your self-assessment about emotional patterns connected to being the youngest child is spot on.

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