We all have our expectations of each stage of our lives. We know, for example, as children, that we need to learn how to play well with others and learn right from wrong. We know as young adults that we need to start taking responsibilities for our actions and planning our futures. We anticipate that as parents, we will be experiencing the challenges, wonders, and fatigue of raising children. And, as we enter into our more mature years, we are aware that we’ll need to deal with our maturing bodies, make solid plans for our careers and retirement, and care for our elderly loved ones.
As we progress through each phase, we learn, and adapt, and every experience shapes who we are. We realize there are ways to find joy in every part, even the most challenging ones. By talking to friends, mentors, and loved ones, we feel prepared for whatever comes next.
Lately, however, I’ve been feeling that some vital details were left out in our expectation-setting process for entering our middle-age years. And it has to do with that last little item I listed: caring for our elderly loved ones. Certainly none of us are naive enough to believe we won’t be somehow affected by the needs of the aging generation before us, and we all know that some day, each and every one of us, will pass on beyond this earth. We all expect to need to help care for our parents, aunts, uncles, even older siblings and cousins. We also know that the bulk of this care will land squarely with us, Real Women. But now that many of us have entered this phase of our lives full force, I’m realizing there were details that “they” just didn’t tell us.
They didn’t tell us that:
- It would happen suddenly. Sure, our own aging process has been gradual and transitional. But while we were focused on ourselves, virtually overnight the generation before us became old. Suddenly they are all 75+, with the majority in their 80’s and 90’s.
- It changes in a heartbeat. Literally. Just as quickly as our loved ones became old while we weren’t watching, like the flip of a switch, their health deteriorates. They go from healthy and vibrant seniors to elders with serious concerns like heart conditions, diabetes, dementia….and they need medical attention and increased care.
- We have to become medical experts. Most of us did not go to school to become nurses or doctors, but now we have to learn what medical terminology means, how to organize and dispense medications, what to watch for in our patients, and how to help them.
- We have to become pro-active hard-asses. Our sick and elderly loved ones are no longer of strong mind and body enough to be their own advocates. We have to do that for them. We have to manage the red tape of our healthcare system, we have to ask the right questions and get clear answers, we have to demand attention and focus from medical professionals and insurance companies. This is no longer the job for the meek and mild. And we have to draw on every multi-tasking and comprehension skill we have to keep everything on track.
- The exhaustion is never ending. We begin to remember all too well the exhaustion we felt when we had newborn babies. The lack of sleep, the worry, the stress, the draining of emotions… it is all back. But this time, we are decades older with far less inherent energy than we had when we were young mothers or aunties.
- Flexibility and understanding become the most important benefit offered by employers. Before, we were focused on our salaries, our 401(k) contributions, our vacation time, and whether or not we had a window near our desks. Now, we need, and desperately appreciate, the flexibility to leave at a moment’s notice for an emergency, or work different hours to accommodate medical appointments, or use company time for tracking down doctors, getting updates, and calling family members.
- It is an epidemic. Literally every day I hear from an R.W. about an ill relative, or her time spent caring for an elderly loved one, or, sadly, someone’s passing. Yes, it is a life stage. What is remarkable is how many of us are all experiencing the same thing at the same time. The time will eventually come when we can get back to other, more fun topics, like who’s got the best sales, what trips we are taking, what books we are reading, and where we want to go to lunch. But right now, the conversations are more about who’s loved one is in the hospital and why.
And that brings me to the final piece they didn’t tell us:
- How much we need to rely on each other. Our fellow R.W.’s get it. They understand the pain, the stress, the exhaustion. We have all been there. And, hopefully, on this roller-coaster path we take, one can be strong at the time another one feels weak. Even though we don’t have a magic wand to keep everyone young, healthy and vibrant forever, we have strong shoulders, open ears and warm hugs to help each other through.
One of my ever-so wise BFF/R.W.’s, who of course has also been dealing with her share of caring for loved ones, stated: We are now tasked to be the Buddha and stay ever present in the moment. And that is so very true. A week or so ago I was working on one of my scrapbooks, and came across photos of a trip we had taken a mere four years ago to visit my Dad. The pictures showed my son roaming around a museum with his grandpa. At the time, my dad was still healthy, sharp, and mobile. He was the wise old sage sharing his wisdom with the young sponge who was eager to hear it. Looking at those photos, both looked so happy to be in each of their roles and having time together. At the time, it seemed like just a fun weekend visit. I had no idea then how quickly those would become cherished and magical memories.
This life phase may be our most challenging yet, and it sure would have been handy to have an instruction manual to study ahead of time. (Funny, I think I asked for a similar instruction manual on raising children!) But like every other stage, we will learn, we will persevere…. And as long as we keep our overwhelmed moments to a minimum, and band together to gain strength from each other, we will still find pure joy in the important moments.