Confessions of a Worried Daughter

“How easily we forget that God designed aging! … Once you truly acknowledge that aging is part of God’s plan, you can begin to embrace it as a divine gift.”

—Missy Buchanan, Aging Faithfully

I’m trying to view aging positively, but reality is hitting hard, breathing down my neck, whispering and sometimes shouting, “Your dad is in decline. It’s time to make some decisions now—before his physical decline becomes a full-blown crisis.”

You’ve probably heard the statistics. The fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population is over 85. According to a 2011 study, the number of Americans who provide care for their aging parents has tripled since 1994. Caregiving has become one of the major concerns of our time, with the number of senior baby boomers rising exponentially and the increased longevity of our elderly population.

  • How do we care for our elderly parents while treating them with dignity and allowing them to have a say in their future?
  • How do we step in when necessary and make tough decisions, becoming almost like parents to our own parents?
  •  How do we manage this transition without losing our sanity?

I’ve been pondering these questions for some time as I think about my 90-year-old dad. Alas, I cannot come up with any simple solutions.

My dad is married, lives 5 hours away from me, and has a wife who suffers from dementia and lives in a nursing home. My stepmother is 94.

As an only child, I feel responsible for my dad’s well-being and long to be closer to him so I can check on him more often. He clings to his independence quite fiercely, still driving and only recently having acquiesced to using a cane. He lives alone in his home.

My dad with me in the Agape Garden of The Upper Room, summer 2009

Over the past decade, we’ve had many conversations about his future. At one point he was ready to move to Nashville so he could be closer to me. But he feels the pull of honoring his marriage vows.

We’ve had several health scares since Dad had quadruple bypass surgery 9 years ago. Each time he’s had surgery, I have taken time off work and traveled to North Carolina to be with him during his hospitalization and to help for a few days afterward. The last time he had general anesthesia, things did not go well, and I had to make temporary arrangements for home health care.

I am blessed and grateful that my stepsister, who lives next door to Daddy, checks in on him daily. Though she has willingly dressed wounds when I’ve had to resume my normal life in Nashville, I realize this is becoming a heavy burden for her.

I have dealt with this increasingly stressful (and guilt-inducing) situation by worrying about it constantly or psychologically distancing myself, neither of which has been a helpful coping mechanism or altered the reality we face.

So many questions plague me. Do I move Daddy to Nashville, and if so, how do I do this without strong-arming him? Does he need to move to assisted living in the facility where my stepmother resides? Would providing in-home care be a better alternative?

As I mentioned above, my dad and I have talked around these issues. Our discussions have been brief (usually due to being in the midst of a crisis) and leave me feeling unsettled.

The last time I went to be with him during and after minor surgery, I had prepared myself to address the future head-on. But somehow, after watching him sign the consent forms for surgery and sedation and being reminded that he shouldn’t make any major decisions that day, I just couldn’t in good conscience bring up the issue of “What do we do now?” Meaning, of course, what plans do we need to make to address the reality in which we find ourselves? As much as I wish, things will not just get better if we do nothing.

Me and my dad, Christmas 2011

In my head I know that I “should” not worry. But my heart tells me otherwise.

I have prayed and asked God to help me discern the best course of action. I have talked to friends in similar situations. And of course, as I always do, I have sought out books for advice and information.

One book that has been especially helpful in this journey is A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents—And Ourselves by Jane Gross (Vintage Books, 2011). I was attracted to the book because Jane Gross is a New York Times journalist and an expert on elder care. She speaks from the experience of finding care for her 85-year-old mother, who was already in assisted living but suddenly was forced by a health crisis to seek alternative arrangements. Gross offers tips for working with siblings to find the best care options for elderly parents, dealing with the maze of Medicaid and Medicare, addressing financial concerns, understanding adult children’s needs and practicing self-care as we care for our parents, and much more.

As I’ve prayed, I have meditated on the following scriptures and readings:

Even before a word is on my tongue,

O LORD, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.”

—Psalm 139: 1-2, 4-5 (NRSV)

“Therefore, I [Jesus] say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. … Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? … Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

—Matthew 6:25-27, 34 (CEB)

“Gracious God, I thank you for the answered prayers in my life, especially …

_________________________________________. Quiet the noises in my soul and let me hear you. Be near to me in this journey. Amen.”

—Missy Buchanan, Aging Faithfully: 28 Days of Prayer

“Life is like a good book. There are countless times when we don’t have the foggiest understanding abut what’s happening. We puzzle over how the characters, the plot, themes, and episodes fit into the story. We read on, trusting that everything will make sense in the end. We believe somehow times of fear, bewilderment, and confusion will change to wonder, grace and revelation when we reach the concluding words. In the meantime, we read on. We simply show up, walk humbly with our God, and anticipate the next chapter of our life’s story.”

—Nell Noonan, Not Alone: Encouragement for Caregivers

In the meantime, I wait and pray for wisdom—sometimes not too patiently.

I also pray for those of you who provide daily care for a loved one and for those who work in senior care facilities. Your job is not easy.

I’ve had glimpses of what it takes to be a full-time caregiver. May God bless you in your caregiving journey.

May you find peace and strength, and may you feel the truth of Galatians 6:9 (CEB): “Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up.”

Recommended Reading

Missy Buchanan, Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults (Upper Room Books, 2008). While this book is written primarily for elderly adults who are in physical or mental decline, it gives adult children understanding of the emotions and daily challenges their parents are experiencing.

Trevor Hudson, The Serenity Prayer: A Simple Prayer to Enrich Your Life (Upper Room Books, 2012). A good resource to help caregivers and others accept the situation they are in, relinquish their burdens to God, and find peace even in the midst of chaos.

Nell E. Noonan, Not Alone: Encouragement for Caregivers (Upper Room Books, 2009). Written by an author who was thrust into the situation of becoming caregiver for her husband, this book of 150 devotions is Bible-based, uplifting and yet realistic about the burdens of caregivers, plus it offers inspirational stories and prayers. I gave this book to a friend caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s; she reports that she read it over and over, underlining and highlighting portions of it, and this book got her through many a tough day.

Nell E. Noonan, The Struggles of Caregiving: 28 Days of Prayer (Upper Room Books, 2011). Another book by Noonan that helps caregivers cope with their frustration, questions about faith, guilt, and struggles.

This blog was originally written for Upper Room Books and posted on their website in July 2012 (in two parts).

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A Tale of Two Kitties

(with apologies to Charles Dickens)

It has been the worst of times and the best of times at the Trudel house this week. On Wednesday night during choir practice, Julie called to tell me that our 16-year-old cat, Snowflake, was having trouble walking and kept falling over, sometimes dragging one leg. As she described Snowflake’s condition, she was upset, and she said, “Mom, what should we do?”

A little over a month ago, Snowflake started walking funny, with her hind legs going sideways when the rest of her body was moving forward. I took her to the vet, who X-rayed her and didn’t find any real explanation for the walking except that she was constipated. Snowflake had a couple of compressed vertebrae, and the vet discovered she had a heart murmur. She recommended that I get some Miralax and mix it with Fancy Feast cat food (uptown stuff for Snowflake, who’s always eaten dry food) and that I give her 1/2 of a baby aspirin. She gave our kitty some fluids intravenously, and Snowflake made a quick recovery.

About three weeks after that, I saw a picture of a beautiful 3-year-old striped tabby on a Facebook post from one of my friends who’s an animal lover. The same veterinary clinic (PetMed) that had treated Snowflake was seeking homes for several kittens and “Miss Lily,” the brown and black tabby. I took one look at that picture, and my heart was captured by that beautiful cat. I thought how people would be so much more likely to adopt a kitten rather than a grown cat. And her luminous green eyes said, “Yes, come and get me.”

So after work that day Daniel and I headed off to PetMed to pick up Lily. We brought her home and carefully put her in our dining room to keep her and Snowflake separated. Snowflake was not happy with the new intruder in her territory. She and Lily had several midnight rumbles that first week, the first when Lily pawed open the pocket door between the dining room and kitchen. The other two times Daniel accidentally let Lily out of the space where I moved her after the first encounter (Julie’s bedroom and the hall between it and the bathroom).

We thought that Lily was the aggressor until one day when I put a leash on her and casually walked through the living room with her. Snowflake jumped off her perch on the couch and attacked Lily. Fur literally flew as Lily defended herself.

I thought Snowflake would adjust to Lily after a couple of weeks, so I was a bit nonchalant about their not getting along … until the Thursday of the second week when Julie called me at work. “Mom,” she reported, “Lily scratched Snowflake in the eye, and there appears to be a piece of skin hanging under her eye.” I decided at that point that it wasn’t worth the stress to Snowflake to keep Lily. I left work intending to take Lily back to PetMed, only to discover that I’d locked my keys in the car. So John and Julie did the “evil deed” (PetMed had told us, kindly, when we adopted Lily that if it didn’t work out between her and Snowflake, we could bring her back). I was a little sad about taking Lily back but felt like it was the best decision for Snowflake.

Back to this past Wednesday night, August 15. “Julie,” I said, “there’s not a whole lot you can do for Snowflake. She’s old, and I think she’s dying. Just be with her and comfort her.”

I left choir practice a little early and headed home. I found Snowflake in worse condition than she had been on July 9, her first episode of being unable to control her back legs. That night I slept in the living room couch with Snowflake nearby on the floor. I could barely sleep. I thought of the many times that sweet kitty lay beside me when I was sick.

On Thursday Daniel, Julie, and I headed to the vet’s. John couldn’t go, as he was substitute teaching. Daniel and Julie knew we needed to end Snowflake’s suffering and though it was hard for us, it would be the kindest thing we could do for Snowflake. The vet was compassionate and gave us plenty of time to say good-bye to our beloved pet. We all cried as we petted her and waited for the sedation shot to take effect before the vet would administer the final shot that would end Snowflake’s life.

Afterward we took Snowflake’s remains home in a cardboard box on which someone had lovingly written her name and drawn a heart. We chose a spot under a cedar tree in our backyard to bury our sweet kitty. We all took turns digging the grave and then shoveling dirt back into it. I think all of us were emotional wrecks for the rest of the day.

I went to work about 1:00 p.m. and dreaded coming back home. When John and I sat on the couch to watch TV, it was hard not to see some little white ears perked up, checking to see if I’d settled enough for Snowflake to stretch out on my lap.

On Friday I called PetMed and asked if they still had Lily. The veterinary assistant said, “I think so,” and went back to check. I was delighted when she told me Lily was still there, 8 days after we’d returned her. I told her I would come get Lily the next day.

Yesterday morning, after preparing the kitty litter box and vacuuming the living room (I didn’t want to scare Lily with the vacuum cleaner the first day), I drove to PetMed. She was not quite as friendly as she had been the first time I went to get her. I am not sure whether she was a little sore at me or just out of sorts because of the cat in the cage next to her (it kept growling and hissing).

We got home, and Lily immediately went to Julie’s room. In a few minutes, she came out and timidly walked around the house. She hid under beds, venturing out every now and then. After all, there was a lot going on. Julie was packing to go back to college, and there was a lot of running back and forth. And some of our relatives came over in the afternoon.

Today she’s much more at ease, has jumped on my lap a couple of times, and is enjoying having the run of the house. We will always miss Snowflake, and Lily won’t replace her. But I’m sure glad that she was able to come home and stay with us. A house just seems incomplete without a kitty.