Falling off the radar into the gray zone of family care
So all through the 335 mile drive up to Baltimore, I thought about the terror of not knowing what I situation I'd be faced with when I arrived. It's complicated. I don't want to go into my family's personal lives, but I am telling you about my situation because as adult children, our parents' crises as they get older can have a huge impact on our lives.
There are some golden times in life when all is well, and it is easy to feel like those times will last forever. We can get complacent and sit back when we should be working to secure the future. I had always suspected there was a "before and after" moment that each of us experiences, that propels us into the adult responsibility of dealing with crisis--not a happy "crisis" like the birth of a healthy baby, bringing a little trickster into our lives, but the sad reality of a family member falling ill of dying.
I am starting to think of life as cyclical, more than linear, akin to the boom and bust cycles of a volatile stock market. This applies especially to our ability to work. Kids = crisis (hopefully a good one but certainly setting us on a new path)....then the kids go to day care or school and you can work again. Then parents and in-laws start getting ill or dying. This creates a new kind of emotionally draining, disruptive crisis. This is not a complaint but an observation, one that is important to keep in perspective as we plan our work lives. If you have a goal and are experiencing a stable period in life, then don't waste your opportunity to get started on your plans. This is the time to act! It is also the time to nurture and fortify your support network of friends and family so that when you need help down the road, they can be there for you.
2006 was my before and after year. At the beginning of the year my husband and I had five parents between us, in fairly stable situations. By the end of the year one had passed away and the others all had significant crises to deal with. I am grateful that I am a mother. This is the only life experience that has prepared me to be an adult in the face of a crisis. Perhaps if I had not had a child by now, something else in my 38 years of life would have come up to prepare me, or maybe this would be my time to learn. But the sweet joy and intense work of caring for a baby, learning what it feels like to love as a parent, taught me perspective that shook me out of my youthfully narcissistic view of my own parents. I can see them more clearly, and accept them as they are. This is a true gift. I appreciate what they have done for me, and realize that I cannot control their lives. I can offer support but I cannot fix everything. I have had to discern what is my responsibility and what is not--hard for someone who in fuzzier moments feels like It's all my responsibility!
I hope this perspective puts some teeth into my advice to take very good care of yourself. It is not "selfish" to recharge your batteries, it is self-preservation and regeneration. Moms and Dads are first responders, for crises of all kinds.
Last night after leaving the hospital I drove to the nearby mall to find dinner. They had a Sharper Image store and I stopped by to sit in their $4000 massage chair for a few minutes. I've never been more grateful for this silly store! After a day sitting in a hospital chair I really appreciated the faux-shiatsu massage. Dinner was doomed to be mediocre, so of the fast-food options, I chose Subway as the least worst option. Sitting in the food court, eating my hoagie, I felt like a soggy piece of cheese in the middle of a quadruple-decker generational sandwich.
But I do know I'll we'll get through this. I wonder and worry more about families who don't have a functioning support network, enough security to take off work, or to go into the hospital with insurance, to leave their children in the capable hands of an extremely competent spouse, and all the other strands of a safety net.
Any advice out there from readers who have gone through a crisis? Is the problem of elder care the looming crisis it looks like to me? Will we be prepared, and if not, how can we start talking about it now? This is a topic for a longer discussion at another time. I feel like we're being sold "Sixty and Sexy" as the norm by our Baby Boomer-centric culture, yet my parents are only 5 years older than that and we've begun to see the flip side of that rosy picture.