I recently made phone calls for a foothills community group to check on an elderly woman. I learned that what we hope for from such efforts is not always what we get.
Marie (identifying details have been changed) was 81 years old, living in a retirement community. She experienced a major life change when her husband died about a year ago.
My assignment was to call Marie every few months to ask how she was doing, give her a chance to talk, and find out if she needed any special services.
The first time I called, she was nervously preparing for her first solo plane trip, to visit her son in Phoenix. When I called three months later, I assumed the trip had gone well because she said she was moving in with her son and his family permanently.
“It’s just great,” she said, “they have a swimming pool.
“And they need me.” Her voice sounded almost merry.
“Of course, it’s terrible that my daughter-in-law has bad arthritis, but she needs extra help and I can give it. She takes care of her grandson and she told me he won’t eat vegetables. First thing, I’m going to do, I’m going to plant a garden with him. Let him see where vegetables come from.”
There is so much to read between those lines.
Marie is active. She wants to help others rather than be helped herself. Her “learn to love vegetables” strategy is clever, and it just might work.
But I know that the view must be very different through her son’s eyes. Marie lives in elder housing, with food service, attendants and a senior bus. When he brings her into his home — depending on how often she sees doctors or needs care — he and his arthritic wife may take on many new assignments.
Does Marie estimate her needs accurately?
Is she strong enough to dig a garden, agile enough to bend over plants, organized enough to keep everything watered and healthy and picked? And if she is able to do all these things this year, will she be able to do them next year or the year after that? When will the balance shift from her being “needed,” and therefore helpful, to being “needy,” and therefore needing help?
I asked Marie, “Are all your children OK with this plan?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, “My other son and my daughter are going to visit right away.”
Remembering what it was like between my brother and me when my step-mother died and my father was alone, I think about the dozens of conversations that have probably led to this point.
Is it OK to leave Mom where she is, far from all of us? If she moves to one of our homes, which one? What if she doesn’t want to move? (This was the problem with my father.) How will finances work? What happens as she ages? How will the absent siblings help the one she lives with?
Whether siblings discuss these topics in advance or not, agree on them peacefully or not, one way or another they will come up.
Marie seemed unaware of this.
“I just need to pack now,” she said. “That’s what my son wants. I’ve got boxes, but I just don’t know what to throw out. I miss Max so much.” Her late husband.
Her voice lightened. “They need me. That’s the important thing.”
“My son said he wants to get everything completely ready. He wants my room perfect before I come. I told him, ‘I don’t need perfect,’ but he insists.
“I’m Austrian, you know. I was thinking that above my bed, I’d like a picture of the Alps, or something that makes me think of the Alps. And my bedspread could be alpine flowers. I’d love that.”
“By the time you get there, your son will have chosen something else?”
How many times and how many ways did I make similar mistakes with my father? How many decisions did I make because I felt I had to, but they weren’t what he wanted? He took his stand on the big stuff (“I will not move to California!”) but the home health aides, the medical services, even what we kept and what we threw out from the kitchen after his wife died: my brother and I made those decisions.
Maybe he didn’t care.
Maybe he did.
Marie’s son is 57 years old, no youngster himself. Looking toward retirement, he will now take care of his mother, probably until she dies. He will try hard, I imagine, and Marie will keep silent about some things.
My final duty is to call Marie one last time after the move and ask how it’s going.
I wait about six weeks and then I dial her new number in Phoenix once a day for three days but no one picks up. On the fourth day, her son answers. He sounds frazzled and very unhappy to be speaking to me.
“Yeah, I knew who was calling. Call back later.” He speaks loudly as if to make certain I won’t protest.
“Call in a few months. We don’t want to talk right now.”
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at email@example.com. Her column appears Sundays.