This post is mostly an e-mail from my sister Kathryn Winz, retired professor and part-time caregiver to two beautiful special needs grandsons. It grew out of a conversation we’d had the week prior about how to know when you are no longer able to do what you’ve been doing effectively. She did such an eloquent job of bringing an even larger issue to light–that sometimes the pros who are supposed to be telling you how don’t know themselves–that I asked her permission to use her words.
You remember how worried I was, when we talked last, about installing a deadbolt lock keyed from the inside, to keep Ezra from running away in the middle of the night? I installed the lock, even though there is a chance of a medical emergency in which I won’t be able to open it. A week later Kelly told me this while she was cutting my hair: her Uncle Jimmy, who is 42 and has Down syndrome, needs another hip surgery because he has a difficult time getting up and down stairs. He and his 85-year-old mom live alone in the big old family farmhouse, where the only bathroom is upstairs. Isn’t your family worried? I asked. They have always been this way, and they’re fine, Kelly said.
Well, I don’t think they are fine. Nobody manages forever in such a difficult situation. So I scheduled an appointment at my local counseling center to talk about how to recognize signs that age has started impinging on one’s abilities. I asked if they had an expert on the problems of aging, and the receptionist assured me that they did.
I met lovely, fragile Gloria in the waiting room. Her long silk skirt billowed a little in the air conditioning. She looked carefully around the empty space (it was late in the day – the receptionist had gone home), going down the short flight of stairs to look near the front door. She came back toward me and said, “You must be Kathryn.”
Her office would have pleased Bilbo Baggins, or Merlin. Things were arranged four-deep on every surface. Pictures of adorable children and grandchildren, toys that I believe belonged to the kids back in the 1970s. Mementos of travel. Diplomas from everywhere, including Masters and Johnson. I was looking at a rich, full life, I knew. I tried the leather chair, and sank so far I knew I would have trouble getting out at the end of the hour. So I moved to the couch, and sank again.
I told my story. “Don’t borrow worry,” Gloria said. “Do you have your grandsons living with you?” No, they visit every weekend, I told her, again.
“How old do you think I am?” Mid-fifties, I answered. ” I’m seventy three,” she said. “I don’t worry.”
“Your daughter must really need help,” she said after fifteen minutes of somewhat inane conversation. “Are you able to help her at all?” Yes, I said, the boys often stay overnight with me. But I don’t know how I will be able to tell if that is not safe anymore. “Don’t borrow worry”, she responded. I wondered if in her intro she just picked an age one year older than the client in front of her. Maybe she didn’t even know how old she was.
I remembered my colleague who in the final years of teaching his crime lab course made his students fingerprint each other for an hour every class for the whole semester. That’s all, just taking fingerprints, even after the messy process of inking had become obsolete. He doesn’t even recognize his children any more.
And then there was another friend and long time prof who infuriated the dean because he could talk for an hour about anything, but when the hour was done, you couldn’t pull out a single point that he had made.
How will I know? How can I tell when I am no longer making sense and providing for others safely? When someone grabs me by my spindly shoulders and says, “Get it together!” I guess. Or maybe I won’t know, and there will be a disaster. I won’t borrow worry.
But this is a legitimate worry and an issue worthy of a good plan. So what do you do? How do you know? She and I had another exchange of e-mail where we took it beyond “asking a professional” (who might be beyond that needed awareness personally). Professional counseling is good for many things, but for this, you need people who have known you for some time and care about you. People who can say, “Your driving is deteriorating.” Or “Do you realize you’ve said that three times since I stopped by to visit?”
This is the work of the courageous and the members of that advisory council need to be carefully chosen. We need to find them and sincerely ask for their help before it starts to become a concern. This isn’t a way of giving someone else the authority to limit our lives. It’s the most effective means we have of accurately seeing reality if our own grasp of it starts to loosen.
Kathryn Winz is retired and is a delightfully diverse fiber artist. Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love. For more see Mary’s website.