Who will sit by my hospital bed?

After a busy day of playing music for a funeral—lovingly arranged by the deceased’s grown children and grandchildren, having lunch with a friend in her 30s who has no interest in marriage or children—“I honestly don’t like kids”—and playing the piano for a Saturday evening Mass at which my three singers were all older women whose lives are completely wrapped around their offspring, I received a text message that upended my life.

My father fell on March 25 and broke his leg. It was a bad break, above the knee on the same leg where he broke his hip three years ago. When I first got the text from my brother that Dad was in the ER getting x-rayed, I hoped it was for something minor like a broken finger. No such luck. It was a bad break, requiring surgery, and Dad is less than a month away from turning 95. We don’t know whether it will heal properly. He expects to return to living on his own in the house where we grew up, but that seems unlikely at the moment. Thank God he had his cell phone in his pocket, or he might still be lying on the kitchen floor.

I spent the last week in San Jose, California, mostly sitting by his hospital bed listening to him talk and interacting with doctors, nurses and aides. My brother was there for the first three days, but he had to go home and back to work. My schedule is a bit more flexible. I was the one helping Dad transition from the hospital to a care home where he will continue to recover and work with physical therapists to get moving again. Right now he’s pretty much confined to his bed. While I was there, I could fetch the phone, the urinal, his glasses. I could run out to get help when no one responded to his call button (all too often).

When not with Dad, I was at the house, cleaning years of gunk off every surface, collecting the mail, paying bills and answering phone calls, emails and texts. It’s a house full of memories. Many of my mother’s things are still there, although she has been gone almost 15 years. In the mornings, I sat in her chair by the front window and wrote. In the warm afternoons, I sat in the back yard in the patio that my father built, looking at the lawn he planted and the sidewalk he put in around 1950. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the house now, but I’m anxious to take care of it. Hard to do when I have my own house 700 miles away in Oregon.

I’m the daughter. It’s my job to drop everything to help my father when he falls. Walking up and down the halls of the care home, I see other daughters and sons doing the same thing. One can’t help but wonder who will do this for me. My brother, yes. If he’s alive and able. My friends? Maybe, but not to the extent that my brother and I have been doing. My niece and nephew? I don’t see them helping their grandfather; would they really help me?

I pray that I will never be in Dad’s situation. Nursing homes are not fun. Hospitals are not fun. If I do wind up in such a place, I hope I will have enough money to pay for extraordinary care. I may have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

It helps to have children, but as everyone says, even if you have kids, you can’t count on them to help. Even if they want to, they may live far away like my brother and I do. Today as I type this, Dad is at the mercy of the staff at the care home because we both had to go back to work. We just pray the professionals are kind and efficient and know what they’re doing.

Dad was doing the dishes when he fell, breaking his leg and hitting his head on the wall on the way down. Here in our community, a young woman named Tracy Mason was driving to work early one morning last month when a truck slammed head-on into her car. Almost every part of her is broken. She has lost part of her vision, is struggling to keep her left leg. One minute she was having an ordinary day; the next she was helpless in a hospital bed in Portland. Everything can change in an instant.

If you don’t have children, start cultivating relationships with friends and family members. Arrange the paperwork so they can help you if something happens. And make sure you have good insurance. Then enjoy today as it is, however it is. If you are able to walk, talk and take care of yourself, life is good.

Thank you for your patience with this slightly off-topic post. It has been a long week and a half. If you’re into praying, I’d welcome your prayers for my dad and for Tracy.

As always, I welcome your comments.

 

 

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"Growing Old without Children"

Last night I was part of a panel discussion at Huffington Post Live about facing old age without children. The other panelists were Sharon Kovacs Grue, an estate planner from New York, Joanne Lema, founder of AfterFiftyLiving.com from Massachusetts, and Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara, a childfree writer from California.

We each talked from home via “Google hangout,” which was a new and interesting experience. I’m going to have to work on getting a better angle for my webcam so my eyes don’t look like I’ve got them closed, but it was amazing to sit at my desk and talk to people all over the country. On the phone afterward, I had trouble explaining this to my father who kept asking things like whether a film crew came to my house. Uh, no. It was just me and the dog. Amazing. 

It was an interesting discussion in which we concluded that life is a gamble and even if a person has children, she can’t count on them being around to help in old age. Maybe she shouldn’t even expect them to. Lema said she taught her children to be independent and take care of themselves, and she tries to do the same. We all agreed that, childless or not, it’s important to prepare for future challenges by setting up insurance, wills, advance directives and power of attorney, as well as maintaining connections with friends or family who will jump in when needed and know what to do. We were mostly talking about people over 50, but nobody knows what’s going to happen in life, so it’s good to be prepared at any age.

There was so much more to say than we had time for. I wanted to get into a discussion about the emotional aspects of aging without offspring, but mostly we talked about medical emergencies, nursing homes, finances and that kind of stuff. Some of the comments suggested we were all childless by choice. Nope.

You can watch the discussion at http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/retirement-without-children I’d love to hear your thoughts.