Role models are so important in our lives. I have posted before about my being a grandmother, and what role models I had (or didn’t have) to fulfill the responsibilities of my new title. Now I have a different role - taking care of the needs of my 88-year-old mother, now living with us.
What role model to I have for this position? Who can inspire me and provide me with the perfect attitude to do this - a mix of patience, love, gentleness, forgiveness, sacrifice, and optimism? Oddly enough, it was my mother herself. I thought back to how she interacted with her elderly family members, how she handled decisions, how she coped as a caregiver. Yes, there are my cues. There in her life is the text for the handbook, “All I Ever Learned about Caring for Old People I Learned From My Mother.”
In the first place, when she and Dad moved into their new small house after 11 years of marriage in the early 1950s, they weren’t alone. My dad’s mother (Ma-maw to us) moved in with them, and she lived there until she died. First I came along, and then my sister Joy two years later, and much of our mom’s life consisted of raising her two girls, and dealing with her increasingly debilitated mother-in-law, who eventually just lived in her dark bedroom, having her meals brought to her, arguing about taking her medicine, and needing her potty seat emptied, and all the other demands of infirmity. It was simple back then; family just took care of you when you needed it. My mom was a full-time homemaker, so she was home all day and could do it.
After Ma-Maw died, Mom and Dad’s lives were filled with taking care of my maternal grandparents - my grandmother, who had been diagnosed with anorexia and was living in the state mental hospital a couple of hours away, and my grandfather (Paw-Paw), who was in good health but needed help to go to the grocery, visit his wife, etc. So there were my parents, their weekends already scheduled in, almost all day on Sundays at church, then on Saturdays, chauffeuring my grandfather around town, taking him to lunch, and then every other Saturday, driving to the hospital to visit my grandmother. It was hard on both my parents to have the responsibilities of their growing daughters and their elderly family members. I saw my parents worry, I saw them sad, I saw them frustrated, but I never, ever heard a complaint from either my dad, who would have loved to have kept Saturdays for his hobbies or to catch up on reading, or my mom, who would have loved to have relaxed at home with her husband and kids.
I have to add Aunt Bessie to the mix, of course. She was my mom’s maternal aunt, a widowed, childless, chain-smoking country woman with a brusque personality and heart of gold. She had lived in Missouri, but after her husband died, moved to Memphis to be near her only family, which consisted of my mother in Memphis and my uncle in Arkansas. She was Mom’s responsibility now. It was Mom who had to help her find assisted housing, it was Mom who was called when Aunt Bessie was discovered giving a bunch of money to a scam artist resident of her apartment complex, and it was Mom who made sure she was picked up and brought to our house for Christmas and Thanksgiving.
First my paternal grandmother died, then my maternal grandmother died, then my dad died, then Paw-Paw died, then finally Aunt Bessie died. After Dad died, Paw-Paw and Aunt Bessie were totally dependent on newly-widowed Mother to be there for them until they themselves passed.
All her life Mother has been a caretaker. She has done this with kindness and compassion and patience and, I’m sure, many sleepless and anxious nights. She never complained, never questioned why. She just did it.
And now it’s her turn to be taken care of. My sister and I have now each had Mom living in our respective homes, giving her showers, ordering and picking up prescriptions, taking her to the doctor, making sure she eats well, and the worst part - sitting through Lawrence Welk every week - and the whole thing has necessitated great changes in our lifestyle, privacy, marriages, time, and countless other adjustments. It is not easy sometimes. Thank goodness Mom, even though physically handicapped now, still has her mind and can do some daily self-care on her own. I can’t even begin to imagine trying to care for her if she had dementia or if I still had young children in the house. But I feel blessed that I have had the best caregiver role model I could have. In all the frustration and busyness of my life now, I am also acutely aware that our kids are looking at Ed and me and absorbing how we are handling all this, for we will undoubtedly be in Mom’s position one day, and they will be caring for us. I pray that we demonstrate humor, patience, and, yes, sacrifice, in a way to allow them to say, “We know how to be caretakers of those who need us because we watched our parents do it.” You know the joke - “Be kind to your kids because they’ll choose your nursing home”?
It all reminds me of an old story:
A highly skilled carpenter who had grown old was ready to retire. He told his employer-contractor of his plans to leave the house building business and live a more leisurely life with his family. He would miss the paycheck, but he needed to retire.
The employer was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter agreed to this proposal but made sure that this will be his last project. Being in a mood to retire, the carpenter was not paying much attention to building this house. His heart was not in his work. He resorted to poor workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end his career.
When the job was done, the carpenter called his employer and showed him the house. The employer handed over some papers and the front door key to the carpenter and said "This is your house, my gift to you."
The carpenter was in a shock! What a shame! If he had only known that he was building his own house, he would have made it better than any other house that he ever built!
Everything we do, we do unto ourselves before it goes out to the world. Be sure to put love into each of your actions!
We show others how we want to be treated. Someone is always watching and learning. You make the world better with your kindness and gentleness, and hopefully those who are watching will extend to you the same courtesy when you need it. That’s what families are for. We are all role models. We will eventually have to live in the houses we build - for God’s sake, let’s make them sturdy.