caring for elderly

Illustration: Julien Pacaud

2 of 8
The Way Forward
A couple years ago, my mother dropped a bombshell: She was moving out of her apartment, she announced, and into a continuing care facility.

This came as a surprise to my two sisters and me. At 88, my mother could walk circles around most 70-year-olds, drive well (if fast), and trounce all comers in Scrabble (the word for a Scottish sweetheart? jo). She took almost no medication, read without glasses, and alternated yoga with water aerobics. She Facebooked. And the only reason she'd cut back on the bike tours was a diminishing pool of able-bodied travel companions.

Mom was losing friends right and left—two funerals in one week was no rarity—and each loss cast a longer shadow. She told us she felt increasingly lonely, despite having daughters close by, and she couldn't always be bothered to eat a meal. Decisions were harder; she wanted to simplify.

She had put down a fully refundable deposit at a retirement place ten years earlier. When she activated her name on the waiting list, my sisters and I absorbed the shock and then counted ourselves lucky. We wouldn't have to police her home for trip hazards or sleep over in shifts or take on the second-job equivalents of managing bills and cleaning and meals. We'd never have to force a move. This decision was self-care on her part, but it was also a gift. She was watching out for us; she was still in charge.

For months Mom waited for an apartment to open up—which meant, we realized, waiting for an occupant to die or to be transferred into the euphemistically named Memory Care wing. In the interim, we occupied ourselves with the colossal minutiae of moving.

One afternoon Mom and I were discussing whether her beloved tea chest would fit in the one-bedroom unit she could afford. It was a thrift shop piece of no great value, but its clean lines and warm wood finish suited her completely. The question floored her, this woman who had managed to earn a master's degree at night while teaching full time and raising three children pretty much by herself. She stared at the chest blankly.

"It's just measurements, Ma," I said, hopping up to find her yardstick. Halfway to the hall closet, I got it. Oh, I thought. Oh. This move meant more than a daunting financial commitment. More than a new social life to build and dining hall to maneuver. This would be the last nest she feathered. She was choosing the place where she would die.

It was an irreversible awakening: Life is a series of beginnings and endings, and this was both. I was witnessing the start of my adventurous mother's last adventure. She's on a path that will only get rockier, and someday my sisters and I won't be able to keep her steady. At the edges of her still phenomenal physical health is a constant ebbing. She pushes the supermarket cart so she can lean on it; she sits back to watch us decorate her Christmas tree. "You need to look this over," she says to me after filling out a passport renewal application. "I'm old."

We're bracing ourselves for what's to come, comparing notes after visits, assessing everything from her driving (still good) to her appetite (so-so). "She's 90, after all," is our new refrain, our way of holding the truth in sight; of remaining alert to the constantly shifting ground; of staying mindful of the mother she is now. Oh, we say silently. Oh.

— Lise Funderburg