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.