A Distinction And A Difference

At first, I thought it would be the same thing – taking care of children and caretaking aging parents. Both need our help. A distinction without a difference. Right? But they’re not the same. Not at all. One is growing up, and one is growing old.

Growing up is shiny and filled with positivity and possibility. It’s all that stuff we call happiness, joy and hope. There are lots of maybes that we can still anticipate will have happy endings. We have our whole lives ahead of us.

Growing Old is the end. The trickle of life to our certain death. The best “maybe” we can hope for is a peaceful ending. Our possibilities have been realized (or not...) and we’ve already lived our happily-ever-afters. Hopefully.  

As the defacto caretaker of my 91-year-old mother, I began my journey with New Baby aspirations.  I would do everything right... I would always have a positive attitude.... my love would be outward and effusive...and – the big one – I would exhibit inordinate patience. Mom’s aging would progress in a predictable June Cleaver sort of way, like watching a young person age through an iPhone app. We would laugh and regale each other with “remember when” stories, and my childhood as I recalled it, would be validated.

Yes, I really (really) wanted to see caretaking through a happy lens... and have humor. I was so sure it would unfold like this, that I drafted mental and paper notes about the book I’d write someday, simply titled Me and Mom. But with every word that hit the page, the distinction between growing up and growing old became clearer.

At first, I took stock of the similarities between babies and seniors. As words, their basic requirements look the same... the need for help with walking, feeding, bathing, diapering, and getting dressed. Babies and old folk also share the experience of receiving chauffered rides, often to their multiple doctor appointments. But with babies, the desired end-game is autonomy and independence. Before you know it, they’re off to college (God willing...), getting married and having their own children.  Not so with aging parents where the end-game is, well... the end. It’s hard to find joy in that.

Babies and aging parents share physical changes as well - in vision, hearing, and language. As new parents, we get perfect scores for understanding and interpreting our newborns’ needs and wants. They reach happy milestones when the pediatrician says our baby’s abilities are “emerging” and that they’re “thriving.” They’re gaining an understanding of the world.

When the same faculties change in our parents, although we still seek to understand and interpret their needs and wants, it’s from a gloomier perspective. The gerentologist (or neurologist, or cardiologist, or pulmonologist, or whatever-gist) uses terms like “declining” or “deteriorating.” These doctor appointments often end with uncertainty and a requirement for “additional testing.” Our parents may be losing their understanding of the world. But it doesn’t always seem to bother them... I think because they’ve had time to think about it.

As gestating young women, we don’t just wake up one day, without forewarning, holding a newborn in our arms. No. We get 9 months to try motherhood on...to practice being a mom... to take motherhood for a mental spin. We watch our bodies slowly morph into life-carrying vessels with subtle physical changes every day. We visit the baby stores looking for the “right” crib and rocking chair. At Target, we buy onesies and maternity clothes (do they still call them that?) We read What to Expect While Expecting. We have nine months to do all this and then we wait for the big day. We’re prepared.

In the beginning of my caretaking journey, I’d look at Mom and wonder - why isn’t she upset about getting old (not in the OMG-I’m-60 way, but in the OMG-I’m-almost-100! way). I asked Mom if she was scared of dying, and how it feels to know your just steps away from Heaven’s Gate. In fact, I’ve asked her multiple times, providing multiple opportunities for her to change her answer. But she never does. With a smile on her face, she affirms that she is “ready” for God to take her, that she’s getting “tired,”  and that she’s done all she needs to do in this life. REALLY!?

At 58, I feel like I’m just beginning my second trimester of life... nowhere NEAR Heaven’s Gate. I am NOT ok with dying yet. But Mom has had 91 years to arrive at her Zen-like state. Even though she is literally about to give birth to her death, she has had lots of time to try death on... to take it for a spin. Mom is prepared.  

Somehow, I find comfort in thinking about Mom juxtaposed to babydom. It helps me see life as a continuum with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And, despite their differences, babies and aging parents share the same human need to be cared for, loved and nurtured. It’s only with time that our parents have earned street cred as dignified human beings. You never hear someone say, “Hey, that baby’s got dignity!” But our aging parents can have it in spades. Hopefully, they share it with us and subtly teach us how to pass it on to our own children. In the end, their dignity is the one thing they can hold on to until their very last breath. 

Emily GaffneyComment