A couple of months had passed since I last saw my good friend, Larry (not his real name). Our latest meeting was for coffee when we lingered over our cups catching up with each other’s news and trying to solve the world’s problems. Before parting company, Larry and I began planning our next get-together or maybe to go watch a football game.
Remembering our conversation, I had recently e-mailed Larry to suggest another coffee at some time. A week or so passed without a reply. “No problem”, I thought. “He’s a busy guy with his career and his family”. I followed up with another e-mail.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t Larry who replied to my second e-mail – it was his wife. She explained that Larry had been more tired than usual and felt some unusual numbness on the left side of his face. “Maybe we should get a doctor to check you out?”, she suggested. Going to the local hospital was a wise decision. The diagnosis? A tumor requiring surgery.
Surgery day came … and with it, some bad news. The tumor could not be removed. Larry was to remain in the hospital until a hospice bed became available. A hospice?!?! I could not believe what I’d just read. Larry is around my age, in good shape, doesn’t smoke or drink heavily, and didn’t seem to be suffering from any severe health concerns.
While I do have previous experience with caregiving as my mother had Parkinson’s disease and Leukemia and my father had Alzheimer’s disease, I wasn’t prepared for this news. I have helped and supported my aging parents but Larry is much younger. My “processing” this news required my seeing Larry so I arranged a time to visit. While driving to the hospice, my mind raced … what would I say to him? There was nothing that really sounded right (anything I dreamed up sounded so fake and/or “canned”), so I decided it might be best to not rehearse the perfect greeting and conversation starter. I arrived at the hospice, parked, and walked inside.
The front desk nurse on-duty cheerfully greeted me, pointed me in the direction of Larry’s room and I proceeded down the hall. I seem to remember walking slowly … maybe in the hopes of delaying facing the truth? When reaching the room, I found the door slightly ajar. I gently knocked and swung the door open. Larry was inside – sitting in a wheelchair and covered with a blanket. He glanced in my direction. “Larry”, I stammered. “Rick!”, he responded. “Thank you for coming to see me”. I had no idea of how he would respond but I was relieved that he recognized me. We sat and talked for some time … he shared his story of how he arrived at the hospice and pointed out a collection of ball caps on a shelf behind me. Larry had long been a sports nut and each cap had been personally delivered by a visiting friend. I was pleased to hear that he found the hospice comfortable and how he appreciated it being so close to his family.
I share this story to emphasize an important point … caregiving doesn’t always involve aging seniors. Yes, adult children helping their senior parent(s) commonly occurs (and is my own experience), but caregivers can also look after grandparents, friends, colleagues, or even children. An accident or a health concern can happen to anyone at any time. Consider that actor, Michael J. Fox was only 29 years old when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Not wanting to sound morbid, but it is very important to plan. Draft up a will, get your financial house in order, check off some items in your “bucket list”, and hold family conversations about final wishes. Many caregivers and seniors often ignore the required discussion and/or stall those conversations for good reasons – it’s not easy to talk about this kind of stuff! Try approaching Mom / Dad, introducing the subject of final plans, and explaining that you want to know for your own comfort. It’s hard to argue with someone saying, “I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to my own future and just wondered about your own plans … I certainly don’t want to guess and be wrong about what you want.”
A senior and/or a senior’s caregiver(s) cannot take continued good personal health for granted. Thinking the opposite of this is much more proactive. A fall or a health condition could easily – and quickly – change the status quo. You cannot realistically expect Mom / Dad to remain completely healthy in their old age. Instead, you need to expect that you can – and will – become a caregiver.
Caregiving requires a great deal of effort, balance, outside help, patience, and even creativity. Larry and I won’t be sipping coffee or cheering on the local football team at the stadium. It seems far more likely that I’ll be delivering my own ball cap for Larry’s collection and we’ll be watching football games on the television set in his hospice room.