I spent spring break with my mother in Toronto. It’s both a strange and familiar path. I still stay at her house, the same house I grew up in a half-century ago. But she’s no longer there. I visit her daily in the impressive Canadian care facility where she has reluctantly ended up. Husband Tim is getting a break, while I trek downtown for a daily dose of a strange dance with a mix of emotions – both mine and hers.
What do you say to someone who in a matter of months has gone from independence at home to definitively bedridden - and bored? She wants to talk to me, she says, and shares in a confiding voice that she can’t very well just stay here. She looks to me as she always has, for a couple of decades now, as someone who fixes everything. Who manages everything from doctors and donations to banking and new bedding. Sadly, this one I won’t be able to deliver a satisfactory solution to. She will be gutted. And, therefore, so will I.
She’s on the waiting list for an assisted living facility we went to visit this week. It is both lovely and awful. Wonderful in its shared communal spaces, light- and plant-filled, with restaurants and music and weekly movies. Awful in the tiny rooms of the assisted living floors, a far cry from her current spacious quarters with a view of the city below and Lake Ontario on the horizon. But the rules of the game are such. Once a room opens up, she will be moved along, as others will need the care that just saved her these past few months from her latest crisis.
I’ve been following a class at MIT called Ageing and the Built Environment, taught by Jo Coughlin. Last Friday, I sat in on my class from my mother’s room on zoom. We listened to a focus group of seniors 85+ being interviewed about their hearing aids. Some students were exploring a project to improve the design and servicing of devices. My mother seemed sceptical. What were they all going on about, she asked? I suggested that her own experience with hearing aids was representative of what the people in the group were saying. They delayed getting them until they absolutely had to, or their families insisted. They weren’t very happy with them, and took time to get used to. They were expensive and there wasn’t much maintenance or follow-up on prescriptions. That loss of hearing had a huge impact on their social isolation and loneliness. It was a sad tale. One of the women couldn’t really hear the questions being asked of her. There was no conversation between the people in the group. I’m not sure they could hear each other well enough to connect.
It was a sad week. The latter years of the 4th Quarter are full of such losses – often starting with hearing and ending with homes. Nothing, of course, like the humanitarian crisis filling up our screens every day from Ukraine. My mother is safe and spoiled and surrounded. This is Canadian care at its best. It’s heavenly in a relative sense. But she’s sad and stuck. Not what she imagined her end would be like - nor I. There is no deep philosophising, or spiritual reckoning, or harvesting of the past. It’s more about whether there will be a banana with lunch. It’s not that she’s lost her mind – just her interest in much beyond the four walls she’s found herself in.
For me, the much-beloved, dutiful daughter accompanying this decline, there is guilt and anguish. I can read tomes on ageing consciously, but I can’t change my mother - or make things right for her. She will hate the time and changes yet to come. I will hate orchestrating them. There is a whiff of despair in the air. It is not new, but pulls at my conscience with yearning fingers. And leaves me with a single lesson. To organise a different dance in my own time, with my own kids. I’ll let you know (or they will).