As a college administrator, I welcomed questions from international students regarding cultural or social matters they did not understand. I will never forget the day a student came to my office searching for understanding on something he had seen over the weekend.
“I went to a building to wash my clothes.” He said. Realizing he went off campus I said, “Ah, you were at the laundromat.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He paused. “But, I didn’t understand why an elderly man and woman were there washing their clothes.”
He sat staring steadfast at my face, waiting for my response.
“Well, it is not unusual for an elderly couple to go to a laundromat. Maybe they don’t have a washer and dryer in their home, or maybe they do, but their machines are broken.”
The student continued to stare at my face, searching for the right words to express his real question.
“But, why were they alone? I mean, why wasn’t a younger family member doing the washing for them? In my country, an elderly person would never be doing such work. Where was their family?”
I stared at my student wanting to say, “Clearly, our family structure is in need of improvement.” But, I provided him with a very long, social explanation – one that supported the idea of individuality. In the end, he said, “The idea of family mobility seems to have problems.”
As a young woman I couldn’t wait to leave the sleepy town I was raised in, and when I started my family I lived some distance away. The idea of my parents selling their home to join us was not a concept. They would never give up their independence.
When my parents entered their seventies being geographically afar I couldn’t see the decline that was descending upon them – reversing the ability to remain independent. After Mom was hospitalized, she asked me to go her house to retrieve a few items. Entering the kitchen, I was struck with immediate sadness. I couldn’t believe this was the same home I had visited just a few months before. The bustling occupants who once took care of every nook and cranny, had been replaced by shuffling inhabitants struggling to make small tasty meals, and manage incontinence.
Recalling the many conversations I had with Mom, asking if she and Dad would consider living with us, or if she needed a home health aide – any help at all – I wished I had been more invasive. With a strong voice, her response had always been the same, “We are alright.” Respecting her independence, and not wanting to upset her I never pushed the issue. Laying in the hospital bed Mom told me she wished she hadn’t been so stubborn, and I told her I wished I had been more invasive. Sadly, the clock couldn’t be turned back.
An elderly friend once told me, every decade she aged, she felt a huge difference. Turning 50 was not so different in retrospect, but when she went from 60 to 70, and then 70 to 80, the changes were immense.
Life can change in a heartbeat, especially for our aging loved ones. Here is a useful link with 18 different warning signs that may indicate an elderly loved one needs help.