Perspective on My Aging Mom

by Karen on May 19, 2009

Ky in ChinaMy mom has always been an amazing woman… strong beyond belief, sharp as a tack, and more energy than a roomful of Energizer bunnies! No kidding, my dad had a stroke when he was 53 (his left side was paralyzed) and my mom took care of him single-handedly for almost 22 years until he died. For all intents and purposes, she had no life besides caring for my dad. She never considered that there was any other choice.

Mom’s of that stereotypical Midwest-Norwegian farm heritage… up at the crack of dawn, get done what needs to be done as quickly as possible and don’t stop ’til you drop. She took care of my dad (never herself) from sunup to sunset, day after day, year after year.

After my dad passed away, my mom cried and grieved for about a year and then the butterfly emerged from the cocoon. She sold the house and moved into a retirement community as one of the youngest members. She made new friends, traveled the world, and was in charge of just about every volunteer activity you could imagine.

That’s why it’s so hard for me to wrap my arms around my mom now (figuratively speaking, of course). It was about two years ago that my bright, energetic, superwoman mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

Her onset of Parkinson’s was gradual at first. She would fall on occasion (I was with her when she fell and hit her head while traveling in China and Spain, which was really scary in foreign countries!) and she complained about feeling stiff all the time.

She had a slight tremor in her hand but, still, the diagnosis came as a shock.

The doctors put her on medication to slow down the progression of the disease but it slowed her down, as well. That, and the fact that her body is just plain worn out after years of taking care of my dad…

This is so not what I expected.

This sounds tacky but I always sort of expected that one day we’d hear that my mom just keeled over and was gone. Simple, quick and fast—just like my mom.

But actually, these days she’s looking more like the other, non-Energizer bunny—the one who just slowly winds down and painstakingly stops running.

I don’t know if it’s the Parkinson’s, the medications, or a combination of both, but my mom is acting very differently these days. She falls frequently, needs a wheelchair often, and is getting confused with details more and more often.

And quite honestly, I haven’t been doing so well with that. When mom says something that is off the mark, I get irritated; not all the time, but sometimes she says things that are so out of character, I am shocked. Then I hear myself talking to her with a tone of voice that is appalling and I hate how exasperated I sound when I respond to her.

I have been trying to figure out why I get so irritated with her. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s an issue of my expectations: I expect my mom to be “her old self” and when she isn’t, it makes me sad and hurt and frustrated and angry, all at the same time.

I miss my mom, the way she was. I miss her quick wit and her humor that got her through so many really, really tough situations. I miss her spunk and her tenacity and her perseverance in the face of challenging adversity (let’s just put it this way, my dad was a great guy but would never be nominated for sainthood!). And I miss the person who emerged from that cocoon of self-sacrifice to enjoy living life with a zeal that was a pleasure to watch as I saw her get back some of the “quality of life” that she had missed for so many years.

I know intuitively that Mom hates being in the position she is now. She doesn’t like needing to be the one being “cared for.” She has always been the caregiver so this is a new role for her. And one she wouldn’t have chosen if she had a say in it.

So it’s time for me to emotionally be okay with letting her be who she is now, the same person only in a very different stage of life. It’s time for me to pause and differentiate between my mom in my memory and my mom today with Parkinson’s (she can’t change her Parkinson’s and neither can I—even though we both would want to).

And, most of all, it’s time for me to remember that each day with her is a gift, because no matter what, she’s still my mom and that, I would never change.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Marlain 05.23.09 at 4:52 pm

I remember going through those things with my grandmother…. not looking forward to the future when I deal with them with my mom!
At my grandmother’s funeral my uncle described it as a thief coming and slowly stealing little parts of the treasure we had. The conversations, the care, the humor, the nuturing.. all those things you’d just taken as being part of who she was. It’s a hard thing to slowly see them gone. It’s hard to miss the whole person you’ve known so long. It’s hard to say which is harder, for me the instant death of my grandfather was so much harder – here one day and gone the next. Having my grandmother taken little by little was frustrating and emotional, but it allowed me to deal with the grief over time, to say goodbye over 5 or 6 years instead of overnight.

Serena Woods 05.24.09 at 5:59 pm

Hi, Karen. In spite of the challenges that you’re facing, you love and respect for your mother are evident. I haven’t reached the phase of life where you are, caring for a parent… And I never will. So, I envy what you’ve had for the very reason you’re seeking peace and acceptance with your challenges. My mother was a 15 year old, mentally ill runaway when she had me. She gave me up when I was 9 years old. I spent a long time aching for her. I’m grown now and have four beautiful daughters of my own. I get to be what I never had. I have to go take the Turtle Cookie Bars that my six year old and I made out of the oven. Enjoy your gift for those of us who don’t have what you have.

~ Serena

Karen 05.27.09 at 8:31 pm

Thanks for your comment Serena. I just got home from being with mom so haven’t been able to comment until now. Yes, I so appreciate having my mom. I was telling a friend today that what I think is hard is watching pieces of her slip away so she is not the person she used to be. I know she hates it as much as I do. It is so frustrating to not be able to help her get back the way she was. I try and assist her in any way I can (she taught me to be a caregiver by how she cared for my dad daily for almost 22 years after his stroke) but having limitations is not something she is used to. I think caring for my dad for so long took its toll on her and she doesn’t want anyone to have to do that for her. I have two beautiful daughters and have told them I will try and make things easy for them when I am old but I know I’ll probably be the same way as my mom! Thanks for sharing part of your story. Your girls are fortunate to have you.

Karen 05.27.09 at 8:39 pm

Lainer — After being with my mom this week, I can so relate to the “thief in the night”. My mother ran and never walked. She served and always put herself last. She gave selflessly and was strength beyond compare. The woman in the wheelchair doesn’t resemble her physically and yet I know she is still the person who always gave herself away and would today if she could. Thanks for the reminder to deal with my grief over time. I want to be to her, as she has been to us.

Karen 06.16.09 at 10:58 pm

Roxie, thank you for sharing your heart and your story. Your compassion and understanding is a sweet gift. Know that it is appreciated. I am grateful.

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