June 19, 2006

Beginning of the Road

By Dane Sorensen


Many of you have had the need to help your parents deal with their increasing infirmities from aging. It is a bittersweet task to acknowledge that time and nature are not the friends of those in their twilight years. Two people I knew in Ely recently died rather sudden deaths. They did not linger trapped in a wheel chair, but then they died years earlier than what those government statisticians claim is our due.

It is natural to fight aging. I always enjoyed the crusty old woman played by Judi Dench in the movie Chocolat She refused to go to a nursing home as her daughter demanded. Knowing her time was near she threw a party and enjoyed herself too much. That night she died in her chair. I wish we all had that option, but dying comes in so many colors.

The last two weekends I had to drive down to the Twin Cities to see my mother who had landed in a nursing home after taking a fall in a parking lot. At 85 years old the ravages of diabetes and failing strength have resulted in my mother resorting to a walker for the last six months. Unfortunately, the walker was not a sufficient guard against falling. This became apparent when my father failed to take it along when he took mom to the beauty parlor that fateful day. He has always helped her walk and probably felt he could keep her from falling, or at the very least slow it down to where it would do no harm.

When I was in college. I worked several years in a nursing home as a nursing aide. It was there that I first learned how time robs human beings of what they most value; freedom, independence, movement, and the wonder of the senses. Little by little, the elderly lose the ability to be what they have been for a lifetime.

The young do not realize there comes a time when we no longer grow up, but instead start to grow weaker. Just as our DNA dictated when our first baby tooth would come out, so does it dictate our first gray hair. Some of us our blessed to live long and healthy lives and be active until the end. Others must struggle against their own bodies. There is no rhyme or reason why some bear aging better than others. Granted there are those that abuse their bodies in so many ways and hurry their DNA's unraveling of their health, but most suffer because they were designed to become frail.

It is true that today's medicine has helped a lot of people live better lives. There are those in Ely that are living happy lives thanks to transplants, others have manmade joints that have chased away pain and renewed their mobility.

But we have no cure for so many other age related infirmities. The skin still gets paper thin and the ability to fight off flu and colds take their share of lives. Our immune system ages just as all our other body systems do. The doctors of Harvard and Oxford have no clue on the mechanism of aging. And neither does Oil of Olay or all those other anti-aging cosmetics of the world.

It is with these realizations that I drove down to Minneapolis to help my father sort out what steps to take to regain as much normalcy as possible in their lives. I drove down to enlist and fight the battle of aging.

Seeing my mother for the first time in a nursing home I was struck with how she reminded me of the old people I had helped care for over 30 years ago. Not much has changed in nursing homes. The floors are still uncarpeted and the hallways still have hand rails on the walls. They contain people who no longer know what day it is or have any hopes for what tomorrow will bring. This description very much mirrors my mother now.

It has been years since she put on a dinner fit for a king, or used her potter's wheel, or drove a car, or wrote articles for her antique club. These pleasures are lost to her, as are most of the memories of those abilities.

My father is anxious to have her return home. I advised my father that he would need a ramp to get mother back into the house. From her last fall she had cracked her pelvis. My father had been helping her out of the car and was unable to break her fall.

I advised my father he would have to get something to help make bathroom chores less stressful. A wheelchair was needed. All these things my father at first resisted. He delayed making enquiries on finding a carpenter for the ramp for several days.

Once back in Ely, I suggested to him that I could drive down again and build a ramp if no other option appeared. By Thursday he finally accepted my offer and so I loaded my weapons against aging and other tools into the minivan.

Now I am not a skilled craftsman. I can do a good job, but speed is not part of the equation. It took two long days to finish a 17 foot ramp. While sawing and building, my older brother stopped by and was amused at my original design. What I told my father and brother is that I design things to my ability and to the need. Once completed it was an engineering marvel. Sturdy, practical, no surprises and with good strong hand rails. I made my father push me in a wheel chair both up and down the ramp. The task of going up was the most taxing for him.

My mother has now been home several days. With the help of a hired aide, my father has slowly consented to more mobility equipment, such as a lift chair. These are chairs that boost you up when you want to get up. In buying all this equipment the Internet has been a godsend. He has saved hundreds of dollars and all the online firms we used offered free shipping.

I asked my mother the other day if she was happy with Sarah, her new aide and being back home. In spite of all the things she has lost or given up, she still appreciates home. And now the daily tasks of life no longer cause stress or much pain to her. And my father is also enjoying life more, as he realizes that when he does help mother, he has the tools to do it safely and without pain to his worn knees.

So I feel better now. It is a small victory in a war that cannot be won. But those of us with aging parents realize these victories can and do mean a lot to those we love.



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