dealing with elderly parents

Hear No Evil Monkey

Image by Enokson via Flickr

Not long ago, I told my mother and my sister, DNOS, that I preferred to be kept in the dark about the various implosions that occur in the family – especially if I haven’t the power to do anything about them. After all, I live in another country. It’s a 24 hour drive if I push it and can take nearly as long if I fly given the absolutely appalling state of current day air travel. My knowing, therefore, is essentially the same as my not knowing because there is precisely jack-squat I can do for them.

When we were in the Okanagan last week, my dad’s older sister – who is 88 years old – suffered a mild heart attack.  DNOS called and I always know something is up when she calls me at any time other than evening or god awful early on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Week day mid-morning? Something has happened.

Of course, there was nothing I could do. Auntie is old. Her health has been precarious this last year.  She is 88. Even in my dad’s family, where relatives can easily live to see 100, 88 is still pretty fucking old.  So, while I attempted to impose order onto my MIL’s decamping from her condo, I worried about Auntie; about Mom, who doesn’t do stress well at all anymore; and about DNOS, who doesn’t do stress all that well herself of late.

And it was fine. Auntie is home and hooked up to Lifeline and recovering nicely.

After the whole near death experience with Baby earlier in the summer, I had an opportunity to be home and let interested parties know that unless someone was dead or near enough that it’s a certainty – don’t call me.  I don’t need the stress for one thing, but mostly, nobody listens to a word I say when the shite is flying off the fan anyway. Even though, a lot of the time, my advice is spot on.

Oh, I am sure they listen, you think.

No.  If the Auntie incident wasn’t proof – and I let that go because Auntie is DNOS’s godmother and they are close – today would convince you, my skeptical reader.

We went into the city to see Mick and run a few errands. A trip like this is a half day-ish affair. Driving is just a side-effect of living in the part of Canada that we do, so when DNOS didn’t find me at home, she immediately falls back on my cell. Nevermind that it’s a piece of crap that is off due to battery life issues more than it’s on or that I just as often don’t have it on me. So when it went off as we drove home, I already knew that something was likely amiss.

“What’s up?” I ask after being greeted by DNOS on the other end of the transmission.

She always greets me cordially before launching into the true nature of her call. Something that I almost find worthy of a chuckle.

“Lawnmower Man is harassing Mom for money. He’s just out of jail and has been calling her since last night, telling her if she doesn’t help them out he will be forced to pack Baby up and dump her on Mom’s doorstep.”

Jail? Again.

Apparently for OWI number four. He’s a hopeless alcoholic*, which makes it ironic that Baby, given the hysteria she had over our father’s drinking problem, would tangle herself up with a guy who makes Dad look like a teetotaler by comparison.

“I want Mom to call the police, but she won’t.”

DNOS’s voice was a bit quavering and as she goes on to tell me she even called Baby to try to put a stop to the harassment, I know it’s serious. Both of our younger siblings are effectively “dead” to her. She wouldn’t call either one to warn them of the coming Apocalypse.

“So you want me to talk to her?” I asked.

“Yes, I called Baby and now LawnMower Man has my number!”

I hear a voice in the background and she continues,

“BIL says it’s not a big deal because we have guns.”

I relayed that bit to Rob after and he laughed. Rob would love to be similarly equipped but we’re Canadians.

Promising her I would call mother as soon as I got home, she hung up only to call me back and let me know that Mom had decided to go to the police station. She wanted to go there rather than have a patrol car come to the house. She didn’t want the neighbors to know. I don’t know why. The neighbors have long thought we were mere millimeters from white trash anyway.

A trip to the cop shop and a few more back and forth long distance convo’s later and all is fine.

LawnMower Man is on work release, so he is technically still in custody. Mom has reluctantly agreed to change the locks on her doors though not until after the holiday weekend because it will cost too much to have the locksmith up today. This after I went on at her last spring for installing new doors and locks and giving that idiot baby sister of mine another key in the first place. See what I mean about “no one listens to me”?

Since the drunk in question is incarcerated when not milking cows, Mom feels secure enough to sleep in her own home for the time being. DNOS was content with this as well. Problem probably solved.

But not really because I had to know about it in the first place! However, I got to be worked up into a frenzy about it and they will ignore the other things I suggested should be done to keep this from happening again – until the next time it happens. And it will. Baby has a lifetime history of trusting anyone but her own family. She won’t walk about this relationship.

“Next life time,” I told Rob, “It’s orphaned and childless for us.”

“Next marriage, ” he replied, “I’m going to do a better job of screening applicants.”

“I did warn you,” I reminded him.

He nodded, “Indeed, and there will be no more marriages. Two wives with colorful family is enough for me.”

*Just to make it a completely interesting weekend, Rob’s homeless niece and her drunkard/drug abusing other of some significance are house/animal sitting for Edie and Silver. I shudder at the possibility for ugly fallout that might cause, but Edie and Mick are determined to give their cousin every chance even at risk to themselves.

I got into the habit of calling my dad in the late afternoon during his last months. It was a good time of day to catch him awake and it helped me feel as though I was doing something because his insistence that I not come effectively blocked me from action. One thing I learned during Will’s illness and after his death was that movement was a good thing. It helped. It’s kind of like taking a walk after eating, helps speed the crap through.

Sometimes I still call in the afternoon though Mom doesn’t appreciate frequent base touching. She is a grouchy old woman that way. Nearing 80 and indignant about the changing of the guards as DNOS and I are now treating her more like our children than our mother in some ways.

Calling was a risk. I had spoken with DNOS over the weekend. She reads my blog and called me wanting to express thanks for my sticking up for her while still trying to remain as neutral as possible. In the course of our conversation, I got her side of the story and wasn’t surprised to learn that Mom had overstated a bit of certain points.

DNOS walks a tightrope that I am familiar with but I am too far away physically to be much more than an ear for her.

“Don’t talk to Mom about this anymore,” she asked me.

Which is where the risk comes in. Mom knows that I talk with DNOS and when things are tense between them, she will casually question me about what I might know. Since I am way done with secret keeping, I tell her.

She didn’t like it. 

It’s my opinion – which I expressed to both of them – that they need to talk. Air out feelings. Discuss expectations. And on Mom’s part, finally bury the roles she assigned us as teens and young adults and start seeing us for who we are now.

Mom is one of those people who can’t forget. In the heat of anything, she will dredge up incidents from long past that she has relied upon to define people and set the rules for the relationships she has. She did this with Dad all the time, and while she had good cause to be angry about the wasted years his drinking cost their marriage, it was pointless and time wasting in its own way once he was sober and in declining health. 

I told DNOS that I thought Mom was dealing with a lot of regret and that Dad’s approaching birthday and then the anniversary of his death this coming October were going to make interacting with her less than optimal for a while to come.

I reminded Mom of a time when I was about 10 months out when I simply went off on her over the phone and then refused to pick up her calls for several days. It was DNOS who finally convinced me to relent. It was a stupid thing. I had called to just vent about Dee. I was tired of being her sole caregiver. Not like that was anything new. I had always been a single mom because of the circumstances, but I was under pressure at work because the statute of limitations was up on sympathy for me there, I was struggling with my inability to eat without pain and first anniversaries loomed. Mom tried to compare her struggles as a young mother with my situation. I wasn’t having it. I was totally out of line. It really doesn’t matter how much you hurt, lashing out is wrong. There will always be people who don’t understand or whose experiences don’t mirror your own or your philosophies on dealing. Grown-ups deal. They do not throw tantrums or pick fights.

Mom didn’t remember that incident, but I went on to explain that she might be feeling as she does because she is grieving hard right now and that her perceptions of the gift card incident and the sale of Dad’s car might be colored by this.

Of course she fell back on trying to make me feel guilty.

“I guess I am just a bad person.”

I reassured her as best as I could and pressed the issue of the need to talk with DNOS and let it go.

“Shaping up to be a great visit for us in October,” Rob commented when I told him. 

The October visit has the earmarks of stress all over it, but I promised to attend a wedding in Des Moines and I have a best friend there who needs a shoulder, so we are going. I feel bad for Rob though. 

I expect this will hit another dramatic high or two before it plays itself out.

Mom called me Thursday afternoon. Because it was the tenth anniversary of my marriage to my late husband, I thought for a brief second she may have remembered. But the phone call was about her. Another streak unbroken.

“DNOS sold your father’s car,” she informed me. “And I am pissed.”

The car, if you remember, was a huge bone of contention in the days following Dad’s death last October. My brother, CB, was desperate for Mom to sign it over to him because he didn’t have a reliable vehicle back in Nevada and the truth was that without dependable wheels, he was never going to find work. But DNOS would not hear of it. CB behaved poorly during Dad’s last days and even worse in the aftermath. They don’t get along anyway, but DNOS was Dad’s favorite. She was the one who shouldered the load during his illness. She thought that CB should have manned up and acted his age instead of mining his childhood grievances. He was miffed that no one would at least allow him the right to have issues with the way he was parented. They are both a little right and a little wrong.

In the end, I sided with DNOS. I am the swing vote. I swung incorrectly in this instance. DNOS sold the car in the spring – without a word to Mom – because she wanted the money to pay for repairs to her jeep. Mom had signed the title over to her but on the condition that the car would be available for Nephew1 when he turned sixteen next year. DNOS did not mention the sale of the car until Mom showed up at her house yesterday and asked where it was.

It isn’t a huge deal really. Nephew1 will undoubtedly nag Mom into buying him a beater anyway and my cousin’s husband runs an autobody shop where such vehicles show up regularly. The issue is the money. DNOS, apparently, helped herself to grocery gift cards that Mom had in the house while Mom was visiting us in July. About $400 dollars worth of script which DNOS claims was just $200 and that she “borrowed” to give to BabySis who was broke and begging while Mom was gone.

DNOS has repaid the $200 she claims she borrowed for BabySis, but the kicker is that BabySis had no idea what Mom was talking about when Mom brought it up to her over the past weekend. BabySis was begging again for cash to buy cigarrettes (how does one find the balls to ask for ciggie money from a woman whose husband died from lung cancer?) and Mom reminded her of the $200.

“DNOS never gave me any gift cards.”

Here’s the bottom line. DNOS was Dad’s favorite and she used him like a private credit union, borrowing and repaying in amounts and on terms that only the two of them knew. Dad is dead. DNOS’s spending habits live on.

Mom had a conversation with DNOS about everything. What did she say?

“Don’t tell Annie.”

As if. I am most likely to hear from our mother when things are awry.

I told her what I thought she should do. Whether she will do it or not is debatable. I didn’t even entertain the thought of calling my sister. I like my sister. I like her husband and her son. And I know, more than anyone I think, just how taxing the caregiving she did for Dad was and how much heavier the burden was because I upped and remarried and left the country. I don’t feel like causing a rift between us because Mom has been unclear about her new position on handouts to her children and grandchildren. I handed Mom my two cents, Canadian, and she will do what she will do. I did tell her this,

“I could go all drama about the unfairness where money has always been concerned in our family and remind you of the differing standards you and Dad had for each of us kids, and how DNOS, and me especially, where always left to fend for ourselves even in times of crisis, but I won’t. It doesn’t matter. What matters is what do you want to do with your money and what is your criteria for lending money and giving away possessions now.”