issues with elderly parents

Compulsive hoarding in a private apartment

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I am a purger extraordinaire. Nary a sentimental bone in my body. About the only thing I have difficulty shedding is paper. My desk and more than a few boxes can attest to the fact that I loathe chucking my own words or any scrap of paper that relates to anything I think might come back and thump me if I can’t produce it. The former is a side-effect of being a writer, and the latter stems in part from my father’s training concerning finances and record-keeping but more from the days of care-taking during my late husband’s illness. Between Medicaid and Social Security, keeping a paper trail become a bit of a mantra.

Where stuff is concerned though I am stone cold. Clothes in particular should be gifted, garage-saled or donated with merciless regularity. I don’t understand hanging on to apparel that you don’t wear and are unlikely to ever wear again unless you should find yourself suddenly thrust into an ice age survival scenario that requires you to don as many articles of clothing as possible.

My sister, DNOS, has a closet containing clothing from every era of her life . Acid washed jeans, Flash Dance sweatshirts and probably jelly shoes. There are articles of clothing in her possession that I gifted to her when I left college … in 1987. She comes by this as my daughter does – paternally. Our father kept dress clothing until the fabric was shiny and nearly transparent.

Recently, we helped Rob’s mom pack up her home for her move south. Boxes of things that hadn’t seen the light of day since her last move four years ago, were taken from their current area of limbo and packed into boxes that will eventually dump them in some new Twilight Zone space in Arizona.

Perhaps I am missing something but how important can something be if it’s primary residence is storage, and you only think about it on the occasion of moving it from one residence to another?

Because that’s the reality of most possessions. Think about all those dimly to not at all lit spaces in your home where stuff resides like residents of the Island of Misfit Toys.

The oldest daughter, Fare, reclaimed her childhood from the basement storage not long ago. Books, school records and stuffies.

“She says she’s keeping it for the children she wants to have,” Mick told me.

“You should tell her that there is maybe one thing I saved from my childhood that Dee ever glanced at more than once,” I said though that’s not quite true. She played with my first Barbie as a tub toy until the mold got it and my Malibu Skipper currently enjoys second youngest daughter status with the family of dolls currently residing in the doll mansion Rob built for her.

But Murphy’s Rule of Saving One’s Childhood Crap for Your Own Children states: they will ignore, hate or break the stuff. All of these things will make you regret having sired or birthed them in the moments afterward when you are cleaning up the remnants of your memories and tossing them – instead of your child – into the trash (though you may briefly consider mending the object and tossing the child).

Rob took his work along when we visited the States this summer. Three weeks of checking email and troubleshooting from afar. He even attended a virtual meeting during week two when we were in Iowa. He very seldom leaves work at work. His reporting supervisors have even nominated him for awards because of his long distance dedication to “a job well done”

And around his workplace, Rob is known for staycations that are anything but due to the ongoing renovation. His latest bit of time off in fact is all about plumbing, electrical and hardwood flooring.

Our recent trip to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia was more about helping his mother pack and purge (the latter being rather subjective) than relaxing on the beaches of southern Skaha Lake.

We are at an age where holidays are anything but relaxing. If elderly parents do not need attention, children do.

The eight days at my mom’s in July was all about her renovation project. Instead of the hiking and fishing we’d tentatively planned, it was filled with trips to Lowe’s and supervising the contractor. The B.C. trip consisted of packing, hauling and errands.

Part of the problem is that Rob is dependable, knowledgeable beyond the average person and just too damned handy for his personal good. And he is a number one son. Everyone’s go-to. Got a problem? Rob can probably fix it and if you are family, he’ll feel obligated to try even if he can’t.

In the month of August alone, he’s had no fewer than 3 family members approach him with issues that they could have dealt with on their own, but as Rob never just says “no” outright, he is usually a safe bet.

I remember this well, but living on the opposite side of an international border has really cut down on the number requests I receive anymore.

Vacation deprived last year because of the whole “heart attack” thing, we worked as much holiday into our schedule as we could once the weather warmed. A week in Fairmont Hot Springs at the timeshare was laziness itself, but three weeks gadding about in the holiday trailer sometimes felt like work and the “family time” squeezed in between Yellowstone and camping in the less traveled areas after was all about getting Dee fortified with grandma, auntie and cousin time with a side-order of looking out for an elderly mom. In more than a word – exhausting.

The trip west was motivated by Rob’s mother moving to Arizona. Her husband is already there, getting the place ship-shape and hounding his congressman, who is hounding U.S. Immigration about my mother-in-law’s residency application. Even though it’s just paperwork, the U.S. is quite tight-assed about granting legal entrance to the foreign spouse’s of American citizens. There’s nothing they can do to force Americans to just marry each other but they are snitty about it when one doesn’t. Holding up routine requests like this is just one of the ways America lets its miffed feelings be known.

So without her husband to help, Gee has been packing to be out of her condo at the end of the month, and she needed help. Naturally, none of Rob’s other siblings can help. At least I have DNOS when Mom is in need. Rob has …me. And I am better than nothing but not by much because with me comes Dee.

At nine now, she is less mothering intensive, and she is a far superior road warrior than she was when we first moved to a country where nearly every trip of consequence exceeds an hour or more one way. But she is nine. She needs periodic interaction, regular feeding and watering and sleep at the minimum, so my attention is divided.

But I am fully aware that no one factors Rob’s needs into any request for assistance like I do. His heart attack looms over my thought processes whenever stress rears its evil green dripping with fetid slime self. I can tell by the sheen of his eyes and the hallow of his cheeks when he’s running on fumes and the depth of his sighs speak eloquently. If I am not on the scene monitoring, no one else will.

Some of this is Rob’s fault. Competency and a history of saving the day are never rewarded. Good deeds are always punished with being taken for granted and more work. He never says, “I’m tired or busy or have a literal mountain of my own crap to do”. He says “Sure, I might be able to assist” even when he’s really going to stretch himself beyond his limits. My husband is a victim of his own history of awesome successes and even really competent patch-work. The curse of the number one son.

Christmas 1979, Northeast Philadelphia, PA

Image by jaycoxfilm via Flickr

With the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday nearly upon us and our little house on the Canadian prairie covered with snow, Christmas cannot be far off, and with the holidays comes massive doses of family dysfunction.

No sooner had the Facebook brouhaha with Rob’s younger brother Tyke settled into an awkward semi-silence than noises began emanating from Rob’s in-laws that could spell trouble for the holidays.

This comes on top of my mother-in-law’s future husband’s being targeted by a Canadian Border official with a bug up her butt.

But my family can be counted on to induce annoyance too.

As I was sitting at soccer practice Saturday morning , working on a short story when I suppose I should have been raptly worshipping the mini-me of my loins, Mom called.

In the old days of yore, whenever she called me at home and got the answering machine, she would immediately call my cell. Her use of my cell as a GPS was my chief reason for fighting my late husband’s insistence that I own a cell phone in the first place.

“You need this to be safe,” was his angle. Though truthfully, he just loved cell phones and loved the idea of us being just a transmitter tower away from each other when we weren’t physically together.

“My mother will use this to keep perpetual tabs on me,” I told him. “She will call just to chat, to vent and it won’t matter where I am or what I am doing.”

It wasn’t until the dang-it thing began interrupting us when we were out to dinner or shopping or just flitting about from here to there that he understood what I already knew about Mom.  He considered it a small price for me to pay so that he could call me during our mutual break times during the day.

Now though, Mom rarely deploys her tracking option – unless something is up.

“Have you talked to your sister?” she asked.

I had not and being asked if I had set off internal alerts.

“I’ve decided not to give any gifts to anyone but the little grand-kids this year,” she said.

And by “little” she means Dee and her cousin N2. Not N1, the nearly 17-year-old for whom it’s been Christmas for quite some time in terms of his Grandmother’s largess.

“Did you send us a check last year?” I asked.

Long ago my parents dispensed with the hassle of actual presents and just gave us money. One hundred dollars to be precise.

“I think so,” she said. “Didn’t you get it?”

Although I couldn’t remember at all, I assured her that we did indeed get it because I didn’t need her panicking and prowling through her check stubs from a year ago.

“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “We don’t need a gift.”

“I’m just going to be all about me this year,” she explained. “It’s been Christmas all year for some and I think I should spend my money on myself.”

Hallelujah! I can’t recall how long I have been at her to simply spend her money on herself. The less she leaves behind, the easier my life will be as I am currently named in her will as the executor of the trusts she’s set up for my youngest siblings. I am all in favor of there being nothing to care-take.

“Did they take it well?” I meant my siblings and nephew.

“I’ve only told you and DNOS,” she said.

But they shouldn’t be surprised because she’s already cut them off from the nickel and dime fountain. Which is why she was really calling me.

Baby’s live-in common-law (I guess) mate, LawnMowerMan, is not happy. Baby is used to calling up Mom and nagging the occasional $20 or $30 out of her from time to time.

The money is for cigarettes mainly but given LawnMowerMan’s heavy drinking, I imagine she buys him booze as well when his paycheck runs short.

Cut off from easy pocket change and living so far below the poverty line that it likely isn’t clearly visible from their little pocket of have-nothingness, LMM has resorted to calling up Mom and harassing her again.

Whenever he is tired of Baby, and this usually happens when Baby is broke, he uses the phone in attempt to intimidate my mother.

He’s a violent man. He’s a drunk. And he has such a low stake in life that he doesn’t hesitate to use whatever means necessary to improve his tenuous grip.

DNOS has officially declared both our younger siblings “dead to her”. When things come up with either then, who’s Mom gonna call?

But what can I do from 1500 miles away and in another country?

After speaking with her, I tracked DNOS down later in the day and asked her to help Mom put a block on Baby’s home number and to look into re-keying the locks and making sure that only she, our mother and our aunt have access to the house.

It’s all I can do.

Oh, I could call Baby and read her the riot act but she has no control over that piece of shit she lives with and I would probably put her at risk if he were around when I phoned.

I am not afraid of the guy though I am keenly aware that he is capable of hurting just about anyone physically if he is inclined. I am hoping this blows over but as Rob pointed out:

“Of course it won’t.  As soon as we show up there in March, something will happen. We never visit that Baby isn’t at the center of some dysfunction or other.”

So, I may have simply postponed the shit splattering until I can take care of business in person.

Ah, can’t you just feel the holidays coming?

I don’t know if the hospice nurse was pressed for this time frame or she told just mom, but I got a semi-frantic call from DNOS.

“Did you talk to Mom?”


“Then you know? And you are coming?”

“It was a couple of hours ago and she sounded awful. Dad didn’t sound too good either, but neither of them mentioned my coming now. Why?”

“The hospice nurse told them it will be about three weeks. Mom is wiring money to C.B. I think she should just buy him the ticket though.”

Let’s step back from this conversation for a moment to note that even though she is panicking in a mild way, she still remembers, and comments, on C.B.’s tendency to not use money sent to him for its intended purpose. And I won’t argue with her assumption. If anyone could eff up the opportunity to make amends with his dying father, it would be C.B.

I point out to her that it is much harder to buy an airline ticket for someone these days because mistakes are hard to fix. It will be better to just send money. I don’t remind her that C.B. will only bring more tension to a situation already fraught and if he doesn’t get home in time, it will make things easier for the rest of us.

“So are you telling me I need to come this weekend?”

“I don’t know. Mom said she was going to call you.”

And so the lines of communication begin their inevitable breakdown. Mom and DNOS are not on the same page.

“Well, Auntie and Cousin are visiting today. They are probably still in the middle of the visit. She’ll probably call me later. I’ll talk to her regardless of whether she calls me or I have to call her.”

I then went on to explain that any decision needs to wait until after Dad sees the doctor tomorrow. The doctor appointment on Wednesday revealed that fluid is indeed building up again and Dad mentioned to the nurse today he is feeling pressure on his chest. The likely scenario is that the doctor will suggest draining the build up or simply letting the cancer run its course. Whatever Dad decides. This will decide things for me too.

DNOS didn’t have much to say after that especially when I pointed out to her that I couldn’t come and hang out for weeks on end. I have a husband and child and even though they would survive without me, it is too long to be away given the stressful nature of everything. Rob, BabyD and I are still raw from our earlier losses. We worry too much about each other as it is. Throw distance in and the recipe is ripe for disaster.

This was not what DNOS expected to hear. She also did not expect me to ask her if she was really prepared for what is coming. It’s not easy to watch someone die. Dad’s death is not a hypothetical in the far future thing. It’s here.

Later I spoke with my mother, she had questioned the hospice intake nurse about the time frame. Wednesday Dad’s doctor took him off all his medications including the blood thinner which has essentially kept him from having any further strokes these last two and a half years. That has been running through her mind and today it occurred to her that this was done because Dad didn’t have much time left. Time that could be measured by weeks instead of months.

Mom was surprised though to hear about DNOS’s call to me. I was not surprised to learn that communication from now on was going to resemble a game of telephone.

The bottom line is that I don’t need to go right now.

But that time is coming much sooner than I had originally guessed and I guessed shorter than three months to begin with.

The cosmos just knows when you are burdened to the point of mental dizziness, loaded up like a wagon cart heading for the promised land which just happens to lie a couple thousand miles off – past the prairies, over the Rockies and across the desert. It also knows that the only thing you are likely to find is a junior wife position in the Lion’s House.

Things stack up. A little bit at a time, but eventually there is nowhere left to pile. Kind of like the inside of MIL#1’s double wide. An Oprah intervention in the making.

For the last week my younger brother, CB, has been calling to vent his spleen and general mental unhingedness on me. While I continue to feel quite badly for him, I am not unaware that he needs me more as a go between than as shoulder. He gets nowhere with our parents when he is in one of his “moods” and though it seems to me that he is no longer effing his life up on purpose, it is really effed up, and he is going to need some cash to start righting it. Cash, by the way, is not something that a 42 year old high school drop-out armed with just a GED and a couple of decades worth of working under the table contracting is going to be able to come up with easily in the economy today.

Because Dad has been ill and largely unable to hold up his end of a conversation, I have been reduced to leaning a bit on Mom. Have I ever mentioned that she is not a crisis manager? Pressure and Mom mix like oil and water.

I know I am heartless, but I believe that despite what they have given monetarily to CB in the past – they still owe him a bit more. The sum he needs to escape Marin and retreat to Tahoe to “get a grip” is pocket change to the parental units. My position is pay him. It will ease the situation for a while, and we could all use that.

However, another wrinkle – that sly universe again – came into play when Dad’s doctors hospitalized him yesterday. Pneumonia and fluid on a lung. Serious in an 81 year old man with pulmonary disease.

My conversation with CB yesterday went something like:

Me: Dad’s in the hospital. Mom will talk with him about the money when all the testing is over, and they know what is going on.

CB: Okay, so when do you think that will be? Because I need the money by the 1st.

Yeah, CB is a bit ego-centric, but as Rob reminded me – aren’t we all – in this life for ourselves kind of thing? Unless you are Mother Teresa that is. Oops, bad example. Or maybe an apt one because as self-less as we are all capable of being, what ultimately makes us happy, content or whatever, is having a life that is stable with people who care about – even love – us.

I googled the whole “fluid on the lung” thing last night then. It was not cheery.

  • infection
  • the beginnings of congestive heart failure
  • cancer

Dad’s lung doctor doesn’t think it has anything to do with his existing lung issues or the pneumonia. This leaves us with two ugly scenarios.

Mom called me after they siphoned off two litres of bloody fluid. She told me – without my bringing up the subject – that she simply could not deal with CB or his request. To which I replied,

“So just send him the check then.”

Because the way I see it, she will worry and feel bad if she doesn’t, and since money isn’t an issue for her – why not use it to buy a little peace and happiness for herself and CB?

And me. Let’s not forget about me in all this.

Later in the afternoon, DNOS calls and tells me not to bring up CB again.

“I didn’t,” I tell her. “Mom brought it up.”

“Oh.” Clearly she had wanted to be bossy and now couldn’t, “Well, Mom had one of her freak-out’s about it.”

I go on to explain my theory and plan. DNOS reluctantly gets on board and agrees to make sure that the money goes out this week and then says,

“I really don’t care about CB anymore. I would be upset if he…expired…but I just don’t care about him.”

And I get that. I have a list of people I should care about more than I do too.

My gut tells me I need to be prepared to hop on a plane and go soon. I know I will have to go without Rob. He and BabyD will remain here until Dad dies. I will have to do the hospice thing again on my own and being the rock and go-to on top of it. I don’t know if I am up to this or not, but life doesn’t need our permission for anything it decides to do. There is no point looking for a whale belly to ride out the storm.

Bad timing and life. Go figure.