Sep 18, 2003

Woke up this morning to the news that it is Chile's Independence Day. Which instantly took me back a year, to a nurse I spoke to outside Grandma's room at the nursing home.

What a year! Grandma hasn't been home much. She was in the nursing home for her birthday (the 22nd) last year because she'd broken her arm. That was the longest stay, ever. She's fallen three times this year, and had a couple of infections, so she's seen the inside of the ER and the hospital a lot, too. So have I. And we are back again.

I never worry once she's in the hospital. They take good care of her at Haukeland Sykehus, the region's main hospital (and when it was new in 1978, Northern Europe's largest). Not once have I met an uncooperative nurse. It's the nurses I talk to about Grandma's condition. The only doctor I've spoken was the guy who read Grandma's X-rays last year and the cheerful young doctor at the ER. I've never spoken to the doctors who actually treat my grandmother. It occurs to me that they don't treat her. They diagnose her and the nurses treat and follow up.

At any rate, as seen from the outside looking in, the hospital is a well-oiled machine. They always know where my grandma is (even if she doesn't). The whole health care system, run by the city and county, is pretty well-organized. But, it is a bureaucracy, so although basic necessities are always taken care of, getting that little bit extra often falls outside the scope of the rules. But they are perpetually understaffed, too.

I could never be a nurse or caregiver. Though I wonder if they are pleasant because they aren't emotionally involved. I lose my patience with Grandma sometimes, but that's because I remember a vivacious and independent woman. This helpless creature I now call Grandma is familiar but confusing to me. It's unknown terrain for both of us, this thing called aging.

If you think folks are old at 70, wait till they hit 85 or so. There is a difference. 70 is still youthful, believe it or not. The 70's are still a time where body and mind are still both capable and independent. Staying alert and physically fit will help you stay independent into your 80's, should you live so long. That's the one thing that bothers Grandma, and that bothers most people who have spent a lifetime looking after themselves: Being at the mercy of someone else for all your basic needs, like food and washing and going to the toilet. Being helpless.

I sometimes wonder if those struck with dementia aren't the lucky ones, if your life is reduced to wearing adult diapers and being spoon-fed and sleeping 14 hours a day. I have often wondered about whether it is better to have all your faculties or to have none, if you are institutionalized. I haven't reached a conclusion yet.

Grandma's been talking to her mother a lot this week. On Monday, she wanted to know if I'd heard from her mother. I jokingly replied that that would mean I was haunted, a reply Grandma just didn't understand. I then told her that her mother was dead and had been since 1967 or thereabouts. She couldn't fit that information in with her current reality. Grandma was clear; she knew where she was. She was just so certain her mother was still alive. I left her still baffled.

When I visited Grandma again yesterday, she still believed her mother was alive, but she also remembered that I'd said she wasn't. At one point while we were talking about my mother's coming visit (Grandma's daughter), Grandma said, "When you meet her, have her read your palm. She's really good at that!"
"You mean my mother???" I asked.
"No, mine."
"Well, that will have to be when we meet in the afterlife," I laughed.
Grandma laughed too, but couldn't figure out why she kept thinking her mother is alive.

I tried to find out if there was any specific reason why Grandma would be thinking so much about her mother now, but there didn't seem to be. Granted, great-grandmother was talking to Grandma, but she was only saying, "I'm sorry." (Long history of lousy mothering in my family, which is one reason why I haven't wanted kids of my own.) Grandma thought maybe it was because she was going to die now. I told her to at least wait until after her birthday. Her comment didn't scare me or shock me or anything. She'll be 93 on Monday, the 22nd. It's just realism.

It's draining, being the only relative who visits, who is present, who gets the phone calls, who has to take care of practical stuff. Grandma leans on me, but I have no one to lean on. I do have a good friend who is helpful and comforting, but no one in my day-to-day life. If I get busy with Grandma's needs, my life gets put on hold. There's no one at my place keeping the wheels turning. I'm not complaining. I'm trying to get the perfectionist in me to shut up.

The perfectionist in me wants to offer my visiting mother a clean home, a spotless guest room, everything neat and tidy and absolutely ready to be inspected by a guest (What? You've never opened someone's closets while staying with them?). But reality intrudes, with time limits and physical limits, and so she will be staying in my cluttered apartment, but the sheets and towels are clean and the kitchen sink is spotless. If it were me, I'd be happy with that. But if it were me, I'd be focused on the person I'm visiting. That's why I'd be there. I'm not sure what my mother is thinking (nothing new there).

Ah, insight! Of course that's what I have to offer: Me! And if that's not good enough, so what (nothing new there, either).

No comments: