Recently, I spent a week at rehab. Yes, I do love my wine but it’s not what you think. I was with my 78-year-old mother who had knee replacement surgery helping her rehabilitate and build strength. I have to say, the experience changed my entire outlook on aging – both good and bad.
Mom spent the first week after surgery in a rehabilitation hospital that was a beautiful facility right on the waterfront. But this proved to be one of the most eye-opening experiences. The quality of care was deplorable. I’ll spare you the, at times gruesome and heart wrenching details, but let’s just say all of those 60 Minute shows we’ve watched about elder neglect are spot on! What’s frightening is that this has been going on for decades and nothing is being done to improve the quality of care in these facilities. My mother was supposed to be there for three weeks but after five days we had to help her escape, if nothing else, for her own sanity – and ours. I spent countless hours on the phone that week with head nurses, supervisors, and her own doctor pleading with these people to step it up a notch and do what they’re being paid – handsomely (by Medicare) – to provide. But there was no incentive to do so.
So what did I learn from this experience? Two things actually. One, I never ever want to go to a rehabilitation facility – do you hear that kids? And two – everyone needs an advocate. In fact, this was a conversation I had with the night nurse after one of my tongue-lashings. She explained that her own mother had a stroke when she was just a teenager and has spent the last 30 years in a rehabilitation facility. So she understood my frustration and anguish. Most shocking, she said, “Your mother is very lucky to have you and your brothers. There are so many patients here who have no one to stand up for them.” Caveat: I know there are some great nurses and caregivers out there, but I can honestly say that my mom was not fortunate enough to have even one.
So, back to my story. We busted her out and then it was all on us to take care of her at home and see that she was getting the proper care and physical therapy necessary. She had a great doctor who helped us arrange all of the home care. But one day, I found myself shopping for her in the toy section of Target. I haven’t shopped for toys in over 10 years. She needed some mindless things to keep her busy while she was confined to the house. I bought coloring books, puzzles and other children’s activities to keep her mind active and engaged. But I will tell you, I actually got a little weepy standing in the toy section because I realized how much life had come full circle. I mean it’s as though my mom was now the child and I was the parent. This carried on through the week as I put her bed, prepared her meals, and helped her bathe. It was a role I never considered I’d be playing.
Aging and this role reversal is not something I’ve given a lot of thought to. But this experience certainly opened my mind. And since then, I’ve had conversations with several others who’ve talked about how parents need us even more as they age. Life does come full circle. Just as I found myself buying toys for my mother, I’ve heard from friends who cared for parents with debilitating illnesses who revert back to child-like behavior and dependency, and have to be “parented” by their own child.
If nothing else, I learned the importance of family and being there for each other when the going gets tough. I’m reading a great book right now, The Blue Zones, that highlights the regions of the world with the most centenarians. In almost all of these communities, elderly parents live with their children and grandchildren who care for them and keep them socialized. There are some great statistics on how this multi-generational lifestyle positively impacts each generation including reducing depression, fewer chronic illnesses and increased longevity.
I’m sure this won’t be the last of my experience with rehab. But I learned a lot about myself and what the future may hold for me as a caregiver, and someday being someone who needs care. Hear that kids? Buy that bigger house with the extra bedroom because Mom is moving in someday!