EDITOR’S NOTE: This guest column is in recognition of National Seniors Day, which was recognized by the Government of Canada on Oct. 1.
Canada has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Modern medicine has made great strides in treating some cancers, as well as contributing innovative research on a host of chronic conditions such as diabetes.
However, in my world, surrounded by grey heads, stooped backs, and blank stares, I feel as if we, as a country are losing an important battle. A battle to keep the older adults in our lives, safe, comfortable, clean, and loved.
When my father-in-law can no longer be cared for at home by his wife, his children, and an army of professionals at Interior Health, he will move to a facility without his wife of 65 years.
That will leave my mother-in-law heartbroken and alone. According to a 2016 Statistics Canada report there were nearly six million seniors living in Canada. Not all of them are in poor health, however the possibility of developing a chronic disease does increase with age.
According to UCB Canada, one in every 500 people are living with Parkinson’s disease in Canada. And 79% of those Canadians are 65 years of age and older. According to CARP more than eight million Canadians provided informal care to a family member or friend.
And shockingly, more than one million of those caregivers are age 65 or older. When my mother-in-law thanks me for washing her kitchen floor, or making a meal, I always thank her back. I get to go home. Her work is relentless, and she is 81. She is home, with my father-in-law, 24 hours a day.
Is the fact that caregiving is traditionally considered “women’s work” the reason that so few resources are devoted to supporting those who care for people with chronic, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s?
I never wanted to be a nurse, or in today’s parlance, a caregiver. At 56, I bask in the arrogance that relative youth, and the absence of chronic health problems allows me, feeling healthy and strong about 95% of the time.
For the last eight weeks, I have lived in a different world. A world where two people I have known for more than 40 years have problems I hope I never experience. Watching them get out of a chair, walk into the kitchen, bend down to get a pan from the cupboard, hurts me, much less than it hurts them. Hearing them talk while reclined in padded chairs is like listening to an episode of “Jeopardy.”
“Father-who is in this picture? No it’s not. Isn’t that my sister? Who’s this? Where was this taken? Why can’t you remember? Are you even looking? Where are your glasses?”
I believe my mother-in-law took the Parkinson’s literature at face value, when she decided that the way to keep her husband awake and with her, is to play an unending game of 20 questions.
They have been together for more than 70 years, and I have learned to stay out of the way. The ins and outs of their relationship are their business…I’m just here to do some of the heavy lifting, and contribute what I can.
A couple of jokes, asking Alexa to play some Hank Snow, or Marty Robbins and making a tasty meal. One that is easy to chew, and digest.
“Dad, where are you going? There isn’t anything in the shed you need. Where is your cane? Why not come and sit down…it’s time for your pills…do you remember? Be careful dad, you already fell once today. Please hold on to the handrail. Dad! Where are you going? You need to take your pills. Why is your shirt un-tucked? Don’t open any more boxes, OK, dad…just leave them. There is nothing in them that you need. What are you looking at? Come over and sit down, dad! Please…”
The dialogue never ends. The conversation becoming more and more one sided. I’m sick of the sound of my own voice. We are all exhausted, and the prospect of no improvement, rather, gradual deterioration is what makes the caregiving burden so onerous.
Sometimes, on a good day, dad shows us a glimpse of the funny, talented, proud man he is. In a couple of weeks, I will board a plane back to my life.
Unlike the majority of caregivers working tirelessly, day after day to care for their loved ones, I get a break. I never wanted to be a nurse, and dad never wanted to get Parkinson’s Disease…I guess we’re even.
Cathy Burrell M.Ed co-hosts the “Aged to Perfection/Old Enough to Know Better” podcast on CJSW 90.9 in Calgary, and writes columns about growing older.