The last few months have been a scary vision of the ravages of aging.
Until my mother declined precipitously after a fall in August, I didn’t perceive her as feeble and infirm. Other than using a walker, she did not seem 94. She was always fastidiously groomed, wore a wig, and was known as a fashion plate by her assisted living neighbors. After the residence lifted its COVID shutdown, she went to a community room for activities most mornings and afternoons, plus every meal.
And then Mom fell and didn’t recover. She uses a wheelchair now. She has dispensed with the wig, exposing hair so thin it can be pulled into a bun about the size of a quarter. Nurses aides dress her for comfort and convenience, not style. She looks like a very old woman.
Seeing a parent’s extreme decline is new to me. My dad lived to 99, looking his normal self up to his unexpected death. If old age is my dad’s example, bring it on. Watching my mother now, I don’t want to live that long.
We moved Mom into skilled nursing last week because her residence said that she needs more care than assisted living provides. There is no disguising that the new facility, although well-kept, looks like a hospital, each resident in a small room with minimal furniture, the door open at all hours, nurses constantly passing by. When I walked down the corridor and glanced into other rooms, I saw a succession of fading residents, not the active neighbors Mom knew in the senior residence.
The gap between my mother and me is just over two decades, but it seems greater now. I look at her and wonder, Could this be where I’m headed? It’s hard to imagine going from walking a couple of miles daily to not being able to walk a few feet. I’ve been blessed with good health for so long that I think of it as a permanent state. The realization that I won’t remain as I am is scary.
Yet I also felt grateful for the reminder to appreciate my health because it won’t last forever. I’m not sure how (Do something I’m not now doing? Keep a gratitude journal?), but I don’t want to take it for granted.
Clearing out the assisted living apartment is also reminding me of mortality as my parents’ previous moves had not. The last two times, we packed what they needed for a new, hopeful stage of their lives. First a two-bedroom condominium and then a one-bedroom apartment, their senior homes were fully furnished and applianced. This time, everything is going away except a few clothes and toiletries and family photos.
To console her, I told Mom that she’s living with other people in a big house where she has her own bedroom, but she realizes how much is gone. She must know that this is her last move, that she needs almost nothing, but she talks about the furniture, the decorations, and the memorabilia that won’t fit into a small room. My sisters tell her what her granddaughters have taken, hoping that it makes her feel better to help them.
As I come across stored-away items from Mom’s past, going all the way back to her baby booties, I feel like we’re dismantling a life. Then I remind myself that the life, although much diminished, still continues in a bedroom in a skilled nursing facility.