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 with kids? Have you made any plans? Please comment.

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Are childless leaders more–or less–fit to govern?

Dear readers,

Please excuse today’s mix tape of subjects. I have been running back and forth to California to take care of my dad, dealing with fallen-tree damage at my house, and preparing for my dog to have surgery, along with at least five other tragedies I won’t mention here. This year has been crazy. All this caregiving is helping me understand the distracted single-mindedness of mothers. It’s hard to think about anything else.

  • While American politicians always trot out the wife and kids as if that validates them somehow, many European leaders of late don’t have children. Among them is Emmanuel Macron, just elected as France’s president. As you can read in this article, “Emmanuel Macron and the barren elite of a changing continent,” many other countries are choosing childless leaders. Voters and opponents complain that they can’t possibly govern effectively without having children, but the leaders of Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Holland, Sweden, Luxembourg, and Scotland, and the head of the European Union are all without children. Is there something about the time and energy required to be government officials that puts parenting low on the priority list? What do you think?
  • Mother’s Day is tough. Going to church can make it tougher. Our new pastor is totally insensitive to the feelings of women who are not mothers. I sat up front at the piano when he had the mothers stand for a blessing last weekend. I swear I felt like I had a giant B for barren emblazoned on my forehead. This Washington Post article, “On Mother’s Day, many women feel overlooked by churches,” takes a look at the way churches make non-moms feel left out or alternatively try to include all women as “mothers,” which doesn’t seem right either. If you go to church, how do they handle it at your church? Do you stay home on Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day)?
  • “New census estimates show that most women age 25-29 are childless” New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that more than half of women in their 20s have not yet given birth. IN 1976, only 30.8 percent were childless at that age.  By age 44, when we can assume that most have passed childbearing age, 14 percent were childless. Many caught up in their 30s or early 40s, but that still leaves a lot of us without children.

Time to walk the gimpy dog. Thank you for being here. I welcome your comments.

 

Who can you count on to take care of you?

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Tomorrow would have been my mother’s 85th birthday. Unfortunately, she never got to be that old. She died of cancer six days after her 75th birthday. She was 15 years older than I am now.

The year Mom died was a hellacious one. In a year, we lost 13 people we loved, including my mother, my mother-in-law, and my ex-husband’s mother. Everyone I had ever called “Mom” was gone.
People who don’t worry about old age without children—because they have children–are always telling me that even if you have kids you can’t count on them to be there when you’re old and sick. I know that’s true in some cases, perhaps many, but that’s not how it works in my family.
When Fred’s father’s health started to fail, he and his mother moved from Las Vegas to Newport, Oregon to be close to us. She didn’t ask, “Would you like to take care of us?” She just decided they were moving to our town. Fred’s dad, who appeared to be in the early stages of dementia and had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, died suddenly of a massive stroke two months after they arrived. We drove Fred’s mother to the hospital in Portland, stayed with her through it all and took care of her for the next four years until she died of lung cancer.
A few months later, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those months when she went through chemo and repeated hospitalizations, I spent so much time in San Jose I never unpacked my bags. When she died, Fred and I were there with my dad and my aunt. You don’t say, “Well, I’m busy.” I was working and halfway through my master’s degree, but when your mother is sick, you drop everything and take care of her. If my dad, who is 90 but looks 70, needs me, I’m going.
When I hear people say you can’t count on your kids, I say, “Nonsense. You should be able to, and if you can’t, something’s wrong.”
Yesterday turned out to be an odd Fourth of July. My friends Carol and Jerry were coming up from California and stopping to see me on their way to Portland. We agreed to meet at the farmer’s market in Waldport. When I got there, I saw an ambulance in the parking lot and wondered who might be in it. I had no idea until I got a message from Jerry on my cell phone that Carol was inside. She had complained of feeling strange and nearly collapsed when she got out of the car. So they called 911.
Well, I had plans for the rest of the day, meeting other friends to see a local parade and have lunch after, but as I waited for the paramedics to check Carol out, I realized I had only one choice now. I would accompany my friends to the hospital and stay with them as long as necessary. After all, this was my town, they had never been here before, and they were my friends.
Carol was suffering from low blood sugar. After treatment with glucose and food, she was soon her chatty old self and able to laugh about reuniting under these crazy circumstances on Fourth of July. I missed the parade, but we had a good visit anyway, and I thank God my friend is all right.
Like me, Carol and Jerry are childless. Both wanted to have children, both were married before in situations where it didn’t happen, and now that it’s too late, they share life with three dogs, six cats, and Carol’s mother, who recently moved in with them.
As we talked about my Childlessby Marriage book, Carol admitted that she sees what she’s doing for her mother and wonders who will do that for her if her husband isn’t around anymore. Don’t we all?
I pray that when the need arises for her and for me, someone will be there. I believe a friend, a sibling, a cousin, someone will step up, but don’t tell me it doesn’t make any difference whether or not you have children.
What do you think about this?