Friday, December 02, 2005

Giving Thanks, Asking for More

I spent Thanksgiving with Mom at the assisted living facility. We (my husband and I) had taken her out to dinner the night before and she seemed to want to stay in for the big day. She said dinner was delicious last Thanksgiving.

It wasn't delicious this year, but it was okay. Watching Mom eat is extremely difficult. She has struggled since she first started having symptoms of MS over 20 years ago. She had to learn to eat with her left hand, though she was right-handed all her life. She still tends to be a little clumsy. Now macular degeneration makes it hard for her to see very well. It means if she's eating light-colored food on a white plate, she can't see it. So she basically moves her fork around the plate until it comes into contact with something and then she tries to get it to her mouth. Eating food that needs to be cut with a knife is a major ordeal. It's a wholly inefficient system of eating and her impeccable table manners are getting in her way. Her favorite food now is sandwiches. I didn't understand why until a senior friend laid it out for me: "It's acceptable to pick sandwiches UP and eat them with your hands. You can't do that with a pork chop!" So, sandwiches. Lunch and dinner, sandwiches. Until we took her out to a restaurant. And until Thanksgiving.

Saying she's shy about asking for help would be a huge understatement. She's always been an independent woman, even after MS slowed her down. After my dad died, she barely missed a beat -- she started driving herself and/or flying alone all over the country to visit her kids and other relatives. She maintained her house until a year and a half ago. She raised four strong daughters. Tough old girl, that one. Can you imagine her at this point in her life having to ask someone to cut her meat for her? Unthinkable. My sisters and I do it without being asked. We just bulldoze our way through: "Mom, I'm going to cut this up for you because it looks like it needs it." She doesn't like it but goes along. When we're not there? She either eats a sandwich or chases food around on her plate. Rarely does she ask the staff of the facility to help her out by cutting her food.

The facility dining room has a procedure for ordering meals that wins no awards for accessibility: Residents each get a menu (12-point font) on which they're required to circle the items they want and fill out their name and room number. MY MOTHER CAN'T SEE. Fortunately, one of her table-mates usually helps her out. I met this woman at lunch the day after Thanksgiving. She's about ten years older than my mother and, you'll pardon the expression, "a pistol." Thank goodness for her.

On Thanksgiving, there was a buffet set out with all the traditional dishes. I saw a lot of residents using walkers and I know Mother isn't the only one who can't see well. I asked her what those people are supposed to do with a buffet. "Oh, they [the staff] will help you if you ask them." Then I saw a woman walk by balancing her plate in one hand while trying to use her walker with the other.

See, these people aren't used to asking for help. They're of a generation (and a culture) that says asking for help is a sign of weakness. Self-sufficiency! That's the ticket! They're not likely to ask for help, even under the most dire circumstances. (My mother once fell on the bathroom floor and still did not use her buzzer to alert staff. It just didn't occur to her.)

I understand the staff is busy, and tired, and so underpaid it makes me ashamed to look them in the eye sometimes (because COME ON, they're taking care of our elders!!). Just a little bit more attention, a little more in the way of resources, could do so much to allow these old folks to live more comfortably and keep their dignity intact. Just a little.

Those of us who are younger than my mother need to learn to ask for what we want. We need to put all our years of activism and complaining about our government to good use when our time comes to depend upon others for care. Speak up! If you can't ask for help now, start practicing. Just once a week, ask somebody to get something for you even if you could get it yourself. Ask a younger person to help you. Practice until you're comfortable. You will need these skills later, I promise you. If you already have these skills, teach others -- especially women -- how to do it. Tell them I told you to. Tell them you're preparing them for old age.


Bleu said...

Dear Amazon -- I miss you! I am here without time to read all of your interesting blog posts, but to stalk you and invite you to Empower (see below -- w/o spaces). Also, if you have my web-based e-mail address, please do not e-mail anything there because I forgot the password!

http:// p202. ezboard. com/ bempower

Bleu said...

Well, shit, now I have to post about your Thanksgiving with your mom. What a great post. I've lived that meal, felt those feelings, watched those workers (well, their counterparts at my grandmother's nursing home).

Seniors need a lot more help than they're getting, and yep, expecting them to understand what they need and articulate it -- that's not going to happen.

FractalGirl said...

Amazon, this is a avery moving post. I can see where you get your gumption from.

Learning to ask for help is very difficult. When my health got bad I had to learn and it just felt like giving up to do it. And that's me -- a baby boomer. For someone who's lived through the Great Depression to do it is much more of a stretch.


the therapeutic writer said...

I understand your frustration all too well.

beachcomber said...

Sigh. The warehousing of the elderly gets more scary for me each year. Partly because my parents now fit the "elderly" category. But mostly because one day I know I'll be there in a long-term care facility at the mercy of over-worked, over-tired and horrendously underpaid staff for whom my care is "just a job".

I'm slowly learning to ask for - and accept - help. Now that I'm at the end of my pregnancy, I find that I actually MUST because there are things I literally can't do. It took me two months to adjust to letting my partner help me. Now I have to face that same hurdle with my mother-in-law, who lives with us. I know I'll NEED her help after the baby comes and Relic's back at work. But I hate, hate, HATE being vulnerable that way. Eesh.

You know, sometimes I think that the normalization of the nuclear family was one humungous step backwards in terms of our cultural evolution. Gone are the days when we helped each other. Now, instead of it feeling like something we just do for our loved ones, we fear being a burden, or are so pressed for time because of our huge work- and debtloads, that we resent being asked to help others. How was THIS "progress"?!

Krupskaya said...

Amazon, I love the way you see things, and how you make me see them. This is a great post.