My parents are both over 80. They are old. They are physically fragile. They have just moved house and country, which is one of the most stressful things they can do. They are having to learn completely new ways of living. Small details such as in which bin do you put your rubbish take time to learn and all these changes are happening at once. Going round the supermarket my mother has to read all the labels as she doesn’t recognise the contents from the colourful packing or the visible branding that is not what she’s used to. They now have smartphones, having never used a touch screen device and barely having used a mobile phone. They have to learn their new house, which windows open, which keys do what, how does the alarm work, the oven. They have to learn to use more than one remote for the TV and the cable TV, how to use a new land line phone.
On top of all that, they have to discover their local area, find out where they want to go for pleasure, what they are going to do, what their new routines will be.
It’s a lot to learn. It’s even more to learn when you’ve spent the last fifteen odd years living in your own little bubble and having things exactly as you like them without having to change anything without months of thought and discussion.
Into this mix I come, now half an hour’s drive away instead of several hours. We’ve been used to quarterly day visits from my father and an annual visit from my mother. In the last month I’ve talked to each of them more than in the last year combined. It’s all changed.
The relationship is altered. What it is to become is yet to discover. At the moment I am the educator, the facilitator, the practical person. I am helping, explaining, supporting, teaching. The roles have changed; I won’t say reversed. I feel sorry for them. I see their fragility, both physical and mental. I want to help them and look after them.
But at the same time I feel annoyed that I’m being compassionate and giving up my time and it’s all about them because they don’t have the space to consider anything else. I mentioned my small housing benefit disaster and got nothing. I mentioned what my sons were up to and got nothing. It’s all about them. Nothing has changed on their side other than the passage of time. I can feel annoyance turning into anger deep down and that conflicts with the fact that these are old fragile people who are never going to change.They are never going to be there for me.
That is easier to accept from a distance.
My mother’s already reverted to talking to me about my father. His little quirks and his health because he won’t talk about them or acknowledge them. She’s not allowed to go up a ladder more than two steps in case she falls because he won’t be able to catch her. His cancerous nodules are growing which could mean anything but it reminds me time may be short.
And yet, what am I to do? No doubt conversations and help will tailor off shortly as they become more settled. Grandchildren will be less enthused about visiting once school comes back and it eats into their time. Their behaviour has been immaculate and helpful on visits so far. I’m not going to be taking my mother round the supermarket once a week or even once a month. I’m becoming the helper and the grown up, but they are not children and they are not helpless.
What do I want out of what time we have left?