Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The sadness of infirmity in old age

I've never written about this is public before because.... it's complicated.

My life for the last few years has revolved around catering for the needs of my elderly parents, and over the last year or so, especially those of my dad.

He was 95 a couple of months ago and after an active, virile life of the usual masculine achievements for someone of his generation, his health and appearance have taken a series of major blows over last couple of years.

This has been most visible in our garden: it's not really something I'm into or very good at, but for all my life planting things to eat, look at or smell has been a passion of my dad's, with varying degrees of success, but nevertheless with unbridled passion. The spring of 2009 was the last time he was able to get involved in it in any way, preparing seedlings and giving me instructions what to do. I am reminded of this now, looking out of my bedroom window and seeing the wreck of our vegetable plots which I haven't even cleaned up or dug over since last year's harvest.

Creepy-looking dead runner bean plants haven't been uprooted, potato plants lay where they they grew, dead flowers have been unpruned, the apple tree needs attention, etc, etc. Until last year, these are all things my dad would have done either himself or organised me to see to doing. And yet now, he's not even been in the garden since September (the practicalities of getting his wheelchair out there and back in have caused him to lose interest) and for the last few months he's rarely even looked out the back window.

He last left the house about a month ago to see his doctor and for the last two weeks he's been permanently bedridden. He has had a bad knee for as long as I remember, he developed a hernia a couple of years ago (which is the immediate cause of much of his current distress) on which doctors refuse to operate given his age and his history of a couple of strokes about 20 years ago, he was recently diagnosed with a cataract in his left eye and he has a burn wound on his right ankle which has refused to heal properly since last October. And he's borderline Type II Diabetic.

He's also suffered from chronic constipation since before his strokes (which the strokes just made worse) and ever since Christmas we've searched for foods he is able to eat, digest and evacuate without TOO much pain. He's currently managing mushy rice in milk with stewed prunes and lots of fruit juice.

It is incredibly sad to watch a man who in his prime could eat a whole loaf of bread over the course of a single day along with a mound of fresh fruit and vegetables and manage a whole chicken or half a cow if he had it available, but was so active that he'd burn it all off.

My abiding memory of his first stroke is not the circumstances of the stroke itself, but the fact that two days after being discharged from hospital, he was 25 feet in the air at the top of a ladder fixing a leaky roof, having been ordered to take it easy for a minimum of a month.

It's sad and frustrating to watch someone who has spent his entire life not having to count on anyone's help or assistance, and indeed refusing it when it was necessary, to be dependant on my 86 year-old mother and me for absolutely every need, and the pain in his eyes is obvious.

A baby requires constant care and attention, needs to have its bottom cleaned and can do very little for itself. But it knows no better. An adult in the same situation, with all mental faculties present but a complete inability to express them, is a different matter entirely. A baby doesn't feel shame or embarrassment, an elderly adult does.

I don't know how long my dad has left. There's every chance that when I wake up in the morning, I'll discover that he never will again. Or he might last another week. The chances he'll survive until Easter are remote. As a religious man that is probably the only hope he has left, of meeting his Maker in the glory of resurrection rather than the dark gloom of Lent.

I've lost all vestiges of my catholic religious upbringing myself but it's got to the point where leaving this life is really his best option. I don't believe that anything awaits him on the other side, but his own over-riding conviction that he is going on to something better and without pain is all that sustains him, and I'm not going to take that away.

I don't really know why I'm writing all this and I doubt it'll be of interest to anyone, but I just needed to get something down and empty these thoughts out of my head before the inevitable happens.


  1. must have been written with a heavy heart Mr Plum. Those proud memories of your father are a wonderful thing to have, now and in the future.

  2. I'm not sure what happened to my post from last night, but let's try again...

    Just wanted you to thank for sharing this bit of yourself. Anyone who isn't interested is a bit short sighted I think.

    I am sure that it feels strange when the child has to take over the parenting role. But if we are fortunate enough to have parents that live long, full lives, then most of us will go through some version of what you're going through.

    It is not the side of love that we want to embrace, but it is love, and your sharing it with us is a gift.

    Thank you.