August 03, 2021

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The cacaphony of the elderly

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My dad had surgery to put in a pacemaker a couple years ago. It’s not a small thing for someone who had reached age 95. For most people, inserting a pacemaker carries little risk, and so it was for Dad, too, but we had to be sure.

I’m the fifth daughter, the seventh of eight kids. We take our turns looking after Dad — my mom is in long-term care, in the latter stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s. But mostly, the regular care falls to my youngest sister, who lives and works nearby.

Dad needed someone to stay overnight. I volunteered.

I made the two-hour drive north, lost in my own thoughts and savouring the silence of the car, to pick him up at the hospital. My oldest brother handed off to me and went home. Dad’s post-surgery instructions were to not raise or lift with his left hand — that’s the side the pacemaker is on. His left arm needs to be immobile, and any straining or effort on that side could dislodge the instrument.

Now, one thing to know about my dad is that he has 25 per cent hearing left in one ear. The other has 0 per cent. Repeat. Every. Single. Word. Repeat. Several times. Each time. Louder. Louder still.

Staying overnight at his house is not for those who sleep lightly. I was sound asleep by 10:30 p.m., having driven 2+ hours to pick him up at the hospital and exhausted by the emotional toll of shouting and repeating. I left him up to watch the hockey game — the semifinals were on. He assured me he didn’t need anything, so I went to bed, read awhile, and then to sleep.

At 10:50 p.m., he woke me up as he shuffled down the hallway (he walks with a walker, shuffles his feet, bangs into things). He banged the walker going into the bathroom, and then again on the way out. His shuffling and banging are accompanied by the sounds the elderly make, especially when they’re hard of hearing and live alone: grunts, muttering to himself, farts, breathing heavily through an open mouth. Preparing to go to bed seemed to go on and on — the noises, the shuffling, the rustling, the grunts.

I’ll call it the cacaphony of the elderly.

He opted to keep his clothes on, instead of wearing pyjamas to bed. The effort of getting into bed also seemed to take an interminable length of time. Grunting, exclamations, blankets rustling — listening, I could see him attempting to slide into bed, but not able to because his clothes impeded the action. Getting up, I peeked in and saw he was mostly there, but twisted in posture, with the blankets not quite covering him. This is a man who keeps the house temperature at 90C in the winter.

I covered him up, and helped him settle in bed. He had a Tylenol placed on his walker shelf, along with a cup of water, ready for the middle of the night if he woke in pain. It had to be placed just so beside the bed. His slippers kept getting in the way. Eventually managing to lift the walker over the slippers without spilling the water, I got him settled.

I went back to bed. Fell asleep quickly.

My phone buzzed. It was my daughter at a sleepover texting me at 12:09 a.m. about her pick-up time the next morning. She didn’t want to go to swimming lessons. This was her dad’s domain, since I was out of town, but I’m the default communicator, and the most hard-nosed about these sorts of things. I read her the Riot Act, both about her lack of commitment and about waking me up; after a few heart emoticons, she signed off and I tried to go back to sleep.

Only I couldn’t.

Dad’s cacophony turned out to be even louder as he lay in bed. Coughing, strange hiccupping noises, groans, intermittent loud snoring, cries of discomfort, calling out, but not for me. This also went on and on. Until about 1:15 a.m., when he finally fell into a deep sleep. Forming the underlying harmony are the other sounds in the house: the hum of the humidifier, the crackle of the fire in the wood stove below, the tick of the clock.

I tossed and turned some more. I finally fell to sleep. Until 5:45 a.m., when the cacophony arose from Dad’s room again as he emerged into wakefulness.

You are as young as you feel. If you begin to feel the warmth of your soul, there will be a youthfulness in you that no one will be able to take away from you.

I pondered the ebb and flow of his noises. He’s a man who lives on his own. My mom has dementia and has been in a nursing home for almost a decade. She turns 92 this year. He’s just celebrated his 97th birthday. The noises assure me that he’s still alive, and even though they keep me awake, or wake me up, I guess I’m grateful for the dissonance of his old age. The unmusicality of these unexpected eruptions is reassuring and steady. They comfort me, hinting at the days of my own waves of symphony — many years hence, I hope.

Whatever our frailties or losses, the music of life continues. I’ve learned it rarely sounds like a symphony.

I turned 52 this year. I am not afraid of that number, nor am I afraid to tell anyone my age. I know my 50s are supposed to be vibrant, life-giving and full of adventures. That’s what they say, anyways. But the reality is, I often feel overlooked by those who love me, and by society in general. I’m too old, too experienced, to find a full-time job in my profession, and too young for a pension. I’m caught between expectations at home and my own quest for fulfillment.

The Irish philosopher and theologian, John O’Donohue, says: “Aging is not merely about the body losing its poise, strength, and self-trust. Aging also invites you to become aware of the sacred circle that shelters your life. Within the harvest circle, you are able to gather lost moments and experiences, bring them together, and hold them as one… aging can be a time of great strength, poise, and confidence.”

He also said: You are as young as you feel. If you begin to feel the warmth of your soul, there will be a youthfulness in you that no one will be able to take away from you.

I’m a GenXer, the sandwich generation. I have elderly parents and children who live at home. I am a too-busy, neglectful daughter who carries the guilt of distanced relationship like body armour. I am married to a man who is gentle and kind, but who functions at a fraction of my speed and who loses his glasses and keys regularly. I am the mother of two teenagers.

This is the sacred circle that shelters my life.

It has been a tough year. The musicality of my life with my children and husband is also often dissonant, although the discord is less tangible, more emotional. It is an undercurrent that flows in and through our home, inhabiting our conversations and, also, settling on the things that are left unsaid. I never expected to be a great parent or a fantastic wife; I thought I might be passable, maybe even good, but the truth is, at every turn, I feel like I fail. Sometimes, things go very, very wrong.

When they do, I try to remember that I’m wise. That my life experiences have prepared me (somewhat) for life with a teenage boy with ADHD and a husband who has it, too. I remember that I am enough. That I can only do so much, take so much, be so much. And although I have come very, very close to deep loss, I hold on to the gifts that emerged from those terrifying situations.

I try to remember the thing that I’ve always reminded myself as my kids moved through their phases: This, too, shall pass. What does not kill us makes us stronger.

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