Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight

10 Jul

This summer has been one of the oddest of my life.  It’s like a combination of the summers during college when I would go back and work in the cornfields, mixed with my time as an 8-5ing “young professional”. (Since working in Des Moines, I have come to roll my eyes at this term because it was most often applied by 20 and 30-somethings who are very self-congratulatory, though most of their success stems from being middle to upper-middle class and being extremely fortunate).  However, things are also completely different since I am working as a caregiver –a position I really can’t compare to anything else I’ve done before. It’s a job that has caused me to think more than ever about growing old.  It’s the summer that has me thinking a lot about my winter.

Just to be clear, I want to distinguish the difference between “growing old” and “dying”.  I have never been especially concerned about death.  As Pink Floyd said in “The Great Gig in the Sky”, “I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I don’t mind.  Why should I be frightened to die?  There’s no reason for it, you’ve gotta go sometime.”  Death is merely a part of life.  However, before this summer, I really hadn’t thought a whole lot about growing old, as in the process of your body losing vitality.  Yes, it is another part of life, but it’s one that I will have to deal with head on.  Somehow, the mystery of what state I will physically be in and who I will be when I’m old is more terrifying than death.  Still, I have been trying to gain a more positive outlook on getting older by taking lessons from the people I’ve been working with.

One of the most interesting characters I’ve been a companion to is a woman named Penny.  To be blunt, Penny is kind of a handful.  She has dementia, and constantly needs to be “re-directed” when she starts being negative or resistant to keeping appointments.  “Redirection” usually goes something like this:

Penny: “I don’t need to go to that darn physical therapy appointment!  I’m 84 years old, in great shape, and I used to be a nutritionist!” (Penny was never a nutritionist. She is, however, in wonderful shape for an 84-year-old.  So I say . . . )

“Oh, but Penny!  Doesn’t it feel great to get some exercise?  And the therapist is always so impressed with you!”

Penny loves being told that she’s impressive.  And if you’re like me, and have seen her kick a soccer ball in a PT appointment, you’ll see that she actually is.

One thing Penny loves is to drive up into the mountains.  She says she wants to “see the animals.”  At first, I was completely for this –until I learned that Penny has odd ideas about this activity.  We could be surrounded by a mountain lake, pine trees, and snow-capped peaks, and she will insist that we are not in the mountains.  Essentially, we could spend an hour and a half among some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, and I will spend most of it redirecting Penny to notice what is around her while she states that she KNOWS that we are NOT in the mountains.

At first, this particular behavior was what had me convinced that I should take up extreme sports when I get older so I can kick it while cliff-jumping instead of watching CNN in my recliner on a Friday night getting angry at how Kyra Sedgwick doesn’t seem to comb her hair (yeah, that happened).  However, the funny thing about Penny is that, even though she may grumble at certain activities throughout the day, in the evening when I’m getting ready to leave she always, always, says what a great day we had and asks when I will be by to visit her again.  Sure, some of this is the dementia making her forget, but her kindness toward me is genuine.  She always thinks the day was a success.  Penny has taught me that, even if I get a bit more grumpy as I age (I will try like heck not to be) the important thing is being comfortable with where I am at the end of the day.  There’s no sense in getting angry about getting older.  I’m beginning to understand how tough it’s going to be, but I can’t stop it from happening, so I at least want to be someone who still realizes that late life is just that: a life.

My sweetest client has to be a woman named Donna.  Donna is someone who has gone through quite a bit.  She’s in a wheelchair, has a prosthetic leg, and a car accident has made it hard for her to use her hands too much.  Every time I visit her though, she seems to be very positive and ambitious.  She’s always hosting for or getting ready to visit someone, and she never seems to let herself do less even when she’s feeling sick on top of all her other problems.  I reeeaallly hope I can be this positive when I’m older.  I hope I have a husband that I’m still in love with, like she does.  I hope that, if I do have to have a caregiver come into my home, that I will have her help me make rhubarb pie and then give her part of it to eat (this actually happened too, and it was awesome).  I want to be the kind of old lady that my grandchildren seek out.  I think I like Donna so much because she reminds me of the sweetest woman I’ve ever known, my great grandma Marge.  She put all cute, sweet grandmas to shame.  If I had it my way, I will be a combination of her and Frances McDormand’s character Margie from Fargo.  I will be sweet, kind, smart as a whip, to the point, and maybe I’ll change my name to Marge, since that name seems to come with the territory.  And hopefully I’ll be married to a guy like . . .

Ernie.  Ernie is the cutest old man to ever hit this planet.  And he has a beagle named Spunky.  If you need a visual of him, just watch this Pixar video.  That is all you need know.  Feel free to “awww” at any time.

One of my less traditional clients is a guy named Alonzo.  Alonzo is one of my few clients who actually isn’t all that old.  He’s maybe in his mid-50s, but has some mental disabilities due to an accident he had as a kid.  The amazing thing about Alonzo is that he has Savant’s Syndrome.  If any of you saw Rain Man, that’s what Dustin Hoffman’s character had, and it’s what made him so great at memorizing numbers.  Alonzo’s miracle talent is that he is an incredible sculptor.  It’s always so fun to go with him to the grocery store and hear all of the people who approach him to compliment him on his work.  He’s gained quite the reputation.  The one thing I was told when I first started working with Alonzo was not to bring up his birthday or anything about his age because it upsets him to get older.  However, I’ve noticed lately that he has been bringing up age and aging a lot in his conversations with me.  He’s recently become very interested in Marilyn Monroe, and always has me help him calculate how old she would be now (86, for the curious).  The other day he said something that kind of caught me off-guard, “Nothing stays the same right? Always changing?”  He always asks me questions in such a way as if he wants me to confirm his thoughts, so I said, “Yeah, things are always changing. That’s true.  But it’s a good thing.”  He seemed pretty happy at that trite and dorky response, but I wanted him to believe it and I wanted to believe it too.  It’s kind of like Kenz’s post a few weeks back: there are great things about being what age we are now, and there will be more great things as we get older.  It’s an attitude thing, but it can be harder to pull off a good attitude depending on the hand your dealt.  I don’t know if Alonzo fully understands how he is different from everyone else, but I don’t think it can be easy either way.  However, he is still incredibly happy and comfortable with himself.  I want to be as entirely comfortable with myself as Alonzo is.  Not that I don’t have self-confidence or don’t like myself, I just want to shuck any of my self-doubt long before I get old.  There will be plenty of other things I will need to worry about.

My most intense clients are a couple, Helen and Peter.  They are both suffering from the same degenerative illness, though Peter is more advanced.  When I first started my job, caring for them was what had me the most nervous.  I wasn’t just worried that I couldn’t care for them correctly, but I also wanted them to really like me since I really like them.  Working with Helen and Peter has required me to do things that I NEVER thought I would do, (I won’t go into details) but I’m just happy if I know I made their day a little bit easier and more comfortable.  It’s difficult to watch two people together who know what they’re up against, and know that they probably won’t get better and can actually see themselves getting worse.  I see their frustration, but I can also see how they can still lean on each other and help each other out.  Whoever is having a good day helps the person who is having a bad day.  When you get older, you have to be ready for any and all scenarios, and you have to learn to accept them with as much grace as humanly possible.  I will need to up my grace quota before too long, but I’m working on getting there.  I’m 26; I’m still allowed to be a little bit (or sometimes a lot) of a mess.

This job has definitely been one of the craziest I’ve ever had, and I’ve had my share of odd jobs.  Still, at the end of the day I’m glad I took it because, while it’s great that I can help people, selfishly, it has made me realize even more of what I’m capable of.  I don’t know what old age will hold for me –I’m especially clueless since all of my grandparents are still alive and fairly young.  Not so secretly, I hope I physically end up like my great grandma Wilma.  Grandma Wilma is in her mid-90s, but has never lived in a nursing home, nor has she had any extra assistance from anyone.  She keeps up her own house, rides her trike (yes, it’s a trike), and hangs out with her boyfriend, Ed (who replaced her ex, Shorty).  Just last week though, my dad called me to let me know that Grandma Wilma was in the hospital after having three heart attacks, and probably wouldn’t be coming out.  My dad told me not to be sad, as the only thing my Grandma Wilma hates more than “bearcats” (her term for bitchy women), is receiving pity.  My dad learned this the hard way when sitting alone with Grandma Wilma in her hospital room.  He began to cry a little, as it was dawning on him that she might soon be gone.  In response, she raised herself up (this is after three heart attacks, may I remind you), looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Stop crying!!”  And by golly, he did.  You do not want to piss that woman off.

So a week after her three heart attacks, my Grandma Wilma, who wasn’t supposed to leave the hospital alive, is getting kicked out of hospice because she, “isn’t dying.”  I think it’s hilarious that her body is as stubborn as she is.  I’m super lucky to have those genes.  Even if I don’t end up as fortunate as her, I just want to be prepared for my twilight years by becoming the person I really want to be as soon as possible.  I’m still working out some kinks, but I think that getting there will make the end of my life -or all of my life really -that much better.  There’s not a lot anyone can control about getting old, but I think it’s wise to have a goal in mind of how you want to be as you get there.  So here’s to Future Me being awesome.  Maybe time travel will be invented so I can high-five her, or something.

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One Response to “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Who ARE You?? « Laundry Detergent Sucks, and Other Tales - January 25, 2013

    […] lucky to have had this time of escape, although it’s had its stressful points (see my post on taking care of senior citizens), but now it’s time to think about what I want to be when I grow up (A person who writes […]

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