Sick and Ageing Parents

Lately, I’ve been hearing story after story of friends going through one of hardest natural phenomenon we face, the sickness or death of parents. I say natural because it is, but that doesn’t make the suffering any easier. Three of my closest friends have a parent recently diagnosed with cancer. Conversations of radiation and chemo, of mastectomies and malignancies, are too familiar in my daily conversations.

There are other friends battling the chronic illness of parents, decisions to be made about nursing homes, constant trips interstate if they live elsewhere, on-going sibling rivalry regarding who is carrying the biggest burden, and endless guilt. The strange thing I’ve noticed is that having had a bad relationship with one’s dying parent is often emotionally harder than having had a good one; there is so much more to grieve.

For me the stories about dementia are the saddest. A parent who doesn’t know who we are. I was listening to a friend tell a harrowing story the other day and it motivated me to share this gem.

My late father-in-law Jack, a Holocaust survivor, met and married his wife Eva, another survivor, in a German deportation camp waiting for immigration papers after the war. For 60 years they had a very intimate marriage, closer than most for the losses they had endured. Both got sick at about the same time, and within a short period were placed in the same nursing home together. Only he was in the dementia unit.

Daily the nurses would wheel them out to see each other. It was very moving. But then something dreadful happened. Jack forgot he was married to Eva, and thought he was married to another woman in the dementia ward. Eva, was devastated. Jack refused to see her, news spread around the home that Jack was having an affair. Eva threatened to kill the woman who stole her man if the woman ever wheeled herself out of the dementia ward, and she would rant about how he turned out to be a rotten cad, and a playboy. We tried to intervene but it was a useless effort since Jack no longer recognised his son.

My friend laughed when I told him this story. I laughed too, although Eva’s pain had broken my heart. There’s a lot that’s terrible in this new world of sick or dying parents. But funny things happen too. And having buried a father, and two much-loved parents by marriage, I tell my friends this: It’s okay to laugh through the tears. They would want us to.

The Australian
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7 Responses to Sick and Ageing Parents

  1. Rosa 10 May 2011 at 5:53 am #

    Ah yes.
    You had to be so careful when answering questions about how the day (and night!) went when you were on duty as in-home carer.

    Too upbeat and positive trivialised your own frustration and distress at the dementia monster. Telling it as it was on a rough day could so easily produce defensiveness and guilt, or, worse, remote instructions.

    National helplines were my friend occasionally. Calm, professional, anonymous people at the end of the line. Vent in safety.

  2. barb braddock 7 May 2011 at 11:01 am #

    Some years ago you wrote a column where I am sure it was you Ruth who was arranging for your mother to go into a home.
    Mother had many things to pack,and give away. There was a handkerchief where she told a story of being given it by an old lady in a reugee camp in europe for being the best bread butter out. The message here was it is not the article that is handed on but the story and the memories it holds.
    I have had recourse in recent years to think of this story.
    Perhaps you could reprint it.
    Thank you for it

  3. patricia evans 24 April 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    oops – left out a few words on line 5 – after “no longer” it should read, knew him after 67 years of marriage.

  4. patricia evans 24 April 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    I’m sure this column was wriotten just for ME and about ME. The last 5.5 years I have visited my parents daily at first in an independent hostel for the aged, followed by my mother being put in a secured wing when her dementia progressed, then my father going into a nursing home for his final 3 months on this earth – he died of a broken heart as his darling “girl” no longer The past 2 years our mother was in a nursisng home and Ruth’s description of ongoing sibling rivalries regarding who is carrying the biggest burden sent me to a Psychiatrist. A lesson learnt from this for me is, do not expect all siblings to share the burden we have with the looking after and loving of our parents in the final stages of their life. Our Mother passed away 7 weeks ago and every day for me is still the same “at 11.15am I rush around getting ready to go down and give mother lunch , check her personal hyiene, change water the flowers are in, etc etc”.
    It is okay to cry after some visite – tears are liquid prayers, and it is good to laugh. Not alot of laughs after visiting a nursing home. Give your parents all the love and giving in your heart you have – they have already done it for us.
    Patsy Evans
    Caboolture 4510
    PH: 07.54954048

  5. Peter Weiss 20 April 2011 at 8:56 am #

    Dear Ruth your article in the last weekend had an unfortunate error. Your wrote that two holocaust survivors, Jack and Eva, met in a German deportation camp.
    Deportation camps were the root of all evil, namely being deported to Auschwitz etc, The above persons were in a Displaced Person’s Camp, among a few hundred thousand Balts, Poles, Ukrainians etc. who didn’t want to return to their countries under communist rule.
    Our refugee camps are neither concentration1 camps nor deportation camps, in our real world they are only holding or refugee camps.
    Nice to read your weekly comments. All the best Peter Weiss

  6. Brian Hollins 19 April 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    I was 10 and my father had died before I knew him. I can recall some events involving my father in that first decade of my life but I have no memory of my relationship with him.

    Two years ago I attended the funeral of a middle-aged friend, struck down with dementia. My last memory was a shared lunch, where I found it bewildering that my friend would copy my actions in eating and drinking.

    Last year an elderly friend passed away. A ‘Rat of Tobruk” finally taken by old age.

    I have now been to enough funerals to understand the relationship between mortality and age, and to steel myself against my own ultimate but hopefully not untimely, demise.

    Worse than the death of a parent or friend is the death of a child. You can celebrate the life of a parent or friend through collective memories but what of a child?

    At 10 years of age, she was standing on the side of a road when two cars collided. One careened into her. She died instantly. The wrong place at the wrong time.

    I did not know her, yet I had known of her. Like all Australian adults, I am affected deeply by the loss of a child but for me, her death was personal. My elder daughter had been the family babysitter.

    At that young girl’s funeral, on a bend in a river, our farewells and tributes were orderly. Our emotions were not. We parents wept when a class mate asked if she liked cats so much, then why didn’t she have nine lives?

    Some years later my daughter had a baby girl. We celebrated. Two days afterwards my newly born grand-daughter died. SIDS .. an insidious acronym.

    Another child’s funeral held on the bend of a river …

    Take our love for you from this beach, remember how you brought us together and keep us within your reach …

    As an outlet for our combined grief my daughter has designed a public playground. The plans have been approved, land allocated and some initial funding for equipment has been obtained.

    It is to be a fun place for those children who have lost a playmate. It will also be a place of reflection for those parents who have outlived their children.

  7. Vicki 16 April 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Totally agree with your sentiments about laughter through tears. Laughter through tears is a nessessity I think and helped me cope when my father died. It is amazing how we can see humour in the most heart-breaking of situations. Situations that just want you to give up and die yourself. My father died 3 years ago on the 19th of April. He was in hospital and all the family gathered, children, grandchildren, My mum. We’d organised for the priest to come. But in the meantime with a few in the room and just as my family walked in after being ab sent for a while, my father passed away. I can feel the tears now as I write this. But it doesn’t end there. We had to wait for my brother to fly up from Sydney, which meant about an hours wait, maybe more. As we all waited sombrely, heavy with grief, the a priest turned up, a catholic one. My father wasn’t catholic but that was okay. So he came in started into his prayer. St Nicolas pray for him, St Jude pray for him etc etc. At one point his phone rang in the midst of the silence, with a strange little tune. He went on and on and suddenly says ‘Lucy pray for him’. At that point I had to stifle a giggle. I looked over at my sister, She too had a smirk on her face. It became really humourous. I thought who the hecs Lucy. Anyway he finished the prayer, offered the right condolences and made his way out of the room. As soon as he left, we all began chuckling, wondering who Lucy was and finding great amusement in his phone ringing. Not long after my niece pops in with a pot of pumpkin soup, asking if anyone would like some. Didn’t think it really appropriate for us all to be eating pumpkin soup while my Dad lay dead on the hospital bed, but then she is a practical sort of a person. Seemed really hilarious thinking back on it. I’m sure my Dad would have found humour in the situation and it just reinforces for me how important humour is in our lives. We’d be lost without it. Comedians are the salt of the earth in my book.

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