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.