Childless or not, expect to take care of yourself

Lately I’ve been living a double life. On March 25, my 95-year-old father broke his upper leg, the same leg with the artificial hip from when he broke it in 2014. He wasn’t doing anything special, just washing dishes when the bone came apart and he fell on the floor, banging his head so hard on the wall he left a layer of hair behind. He was alone, just like he was with the hip. Luckily, he had his cell phone in his pocket.

Since then, I have been traveling back and forth between Oregon and California, trying to do as much as I can to help. I was there when Dad moved from the hospital to a skilled nursing facility, when he left there for a nursing home, and when he went back to his own house last week. In the last four months, I have spent 34 days sleeping in my childhood bedroom and hanging out with Dad.

But I’m not there now. A paid caregiver ($27 an hour) is there for three hours in the morning and three hours around suppertime. Sometimes people visit. My brother Mike drives seven hours every weekend to help him, but mostly he’s alone. My father has two children in their 60s, two grandchildren in their 30s, and three great-grandchildren under the age of 4. None of us are there. We live far away. We have jobs to do and lives to lead. And Dad wants it that way. When I suggested that maybe my dog and I should just move in, he said no.

Those of us without children worry about being alone in old age. I’m alone most of the time. It’s scary. But the truth is that for most families, even when there are children, there’s no guarantee they will be on call 24/7 to help. I do know people who devote their lives to caring for their elderly parents, but for most of us it’s a juggling act. If you have children of your own, you need to take care of them, too. Even you don’t have kids, you have other responsibilities.

You can’t be everywhere at once. Last week when I was moving Dad back to his house, my brother was in the middle of a wildfire disaster at his home near Yosemite. With fire all around them, his family was ordered to evacuate. From Merced, they watched the news and prayed their home and their town would still be standing when they went back. They were among the lucky ones. Their house and their town survived, and they were allowed to return after nearly a week. But during that time, Mike was not about to run to San Jose to load Dad’s wheelchair into the car.

People are always telling me about how having children does not assure that you won’t wind up alone. It’s true. Granted, my brother and I have done a lot for our father. We have paid his bills, mowed his lawn, and interacted with doctors, social workers, and nursing home staff. We arranged his transitions from one institution to another, and I sat with him at each of his appointments with the orthopedic surgeon. If there’s another crisis, we’ll get there as soon as we can.

I have no children. What will I do when it’s my turn? What will you do? So far, friends have helped me when I needed surgery or was stuck on crutches with a sprained ankle. I already have my legal paperwork in order in case someone else needs to make decisions for me. But I know I need to make more formal arrangements for the future. If I don’t acquire a new husband or a housemate, I plan to move into some kind of group living situation so there will be people around to help. I don’t want to live alone forever.

If I had children, would I want them to give up their lives to take care of me? No.

Ultimately we are all on our own. So let’s figure it out. Who will you call if you get hurt? Who will handle your bills if you can’t do it? Who will make phone calls and talk to the doctors? If you do end up having children, that’s a bonus. They’ll be glad you got yourself organized.

What do you think about aging without kids? Have you made any plans? Please comment.

Children may help in old age, but it takes more than that

When I walk with Annie down Cedar Street, the road that runs behind my house, I look to see what’s happening at Bob and Shirley’s place. My elderly neighbors have had a hard time lately. About a year and a half ago, Bob had heart surgery. Something went wrong and his brain was damaged. My father, who had similar surgery about the same time, recovered quickly, but Bob just kept going downhill, deep into dementia. Before Christmas, Shirley stopped in her car to tell me she was putting him in a nursing home. I cried the rest of our walk, remembering all too well how it was with my husband, who had Alzheimer’s and died in 2011.

I was surprised yesterday to see Bob standing in the driveway. Annie, ever happy to visit people, needed no encouragement to go see him. But Bob, once a brilliant scientist, could no longer speak well or respond to anything I said. His words were all jumbled up and didn’t make much sense. He kept saying something about a “ride.” He wanted me to “ask Shirley.” He kept insisting, so I went to the door to talk to Shirley.

Shirley was near tears. The cost of residential care plus the pain of being separated had led her to bring him home a few days ago, but he was getting worse every day. He had been out in the driveway for hours and refused to come in. He kept staring at the next door neighbor’s house, waiting for something, it was hard to tell what. You could tell she was exhausted and ready to fall apart.

But she had help. Their two grown daughters visited often, offering practical and emotional assistance. How I wished I’d had that when Fred was sick. His children mostly stayed away. People keep telling me you can’t count on your children to be there when you need help. It’s true, but oh when they are, what a blessing. I’m grateful that Shirley has that.

But her kids aren’t all she has. As we talked on her doorstep, she was expecting her church pastor any minute. The neighbor across the street was coming over soon. And she had hired the same home care agency I used with Fred to give her a few hours off three days a week. It does take a village, not only to raise a child but to care for people who are desperately ill.

The thing is, that village will not be there unless you make the connections. I admit I’m not good at this. When I sprained my ankle in December, I struggled to take care of myself, hopping around on crutches, sometimes crawling, occasionally falling. True I lack husband or children, but I have friends. I’m just not good at asking for help. I need to work on that skill. As do you. Bob and Shirley, married 60 years, have wonderful children and grandchildren, but they also bought long-term care insurance, made connections with friends and neighbors, and hired a home-care agency. The kids were just one part of the equation.

We all wonder what will happen when we get old. What are your thoughts on not having grown children to help you in old age?

Please, if you’re into praying, include Bob and Shirley and all the other couples struggling with dementia.

We childless do not have to end up alone

We’re taking photos this week for our church directory. I volunteered yesterday afternoon to check people in. That gave me a front row seat to watch people getting their pictures taken.
In past directories, I have always been painfully aware of my lone face sticking out among the family pictures. Some were just couples, but others had so many kids crammed into the shot that they barely fit in the little square.
This year’s directory will be no different, except for one thing. I am much more aware of the individuals who get photographed alone. Men and women. Widowed, divorced, never married. Some have grown children and grandchildren, but they don’t live here. The men were pretty matter of fact about flying solo, but the women would say, “Just me” and sigh. Busy filling out forms, I would nod and say, “Me too.”
Ending up alone is not unusual, whether you have 10 children or none. But the beautiful thing was the way friends connected while they waited for their turns in front of the camera. Some people have been going to this church for 50 years. Our parish is like a big family. Once you enter, you don’t have to be alone.
I know everyone is not religious, and I’m not here to convert anybody. But people can create family relationships in all kinds of groups. For many, their co-workers become a family. But you can also get involved in whatever interests you. Here on the Oregon Coast, people volunteer at the aquarium. They join the therapy dog group. They sing with Sweet Adelines or volunteer at the homeless shelter. They help with programs for kids at schools, churches, and sports organizations. I’ll bet there are plenty of opportunities wherever you live.
I know one of our biggest fears is ending up alone if we don’t have children. And we might. It’s just me and the dog at my house, and sometimes I hate it. But we don’t have to be alone. When somebody needs help, be the one who says, “I’ll do it.”
What do you think about this? I welcome your comments.