Elder-care is nothing like an eiderdown, or the care of an eiderdown. One is about people; the other is about bed covers made of feathers. No comparison.
How much do we know about elder care? If you have an individual of advanced age living with you, how aware are you of certain common diseases of elder persons? For example, do you know what the early signs are of diseases like congestive heart failure? Do you know how to recognize the beginning signs of a stroke? Are you watching your elderly home mate for signs of diseases of the elderly such as pneumonia? Or of undernourishment? Or of sleep disorders that can lead to other problems? Or do you assume that the elderly individual living in your home would tell you if he or she were ailing?
To be honest, although both my husband and I are over 65, we are still in reasonably good health. However, we watch each other fairly closely for symptoms of health problems. Right now, my only health concerns are cataracts which need to be removed, with the lenses replaced with appropriate lenses. I also suffer from chronic back pain from spinal stenosis. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with COPD, meaning that my breathing is not where it should be. I have noticed muscle weakness in my hands, meaning I need to keep “special” appliances in the house to help me open jars, cans, and even bottle tops. The latter is from surgery I had on my hand a few years ago that left my dominant hand weaker to perform the common tasks of twisting the caps off of bottles of water and mild, among other things. And I can’t carry much one-handed any more. Between arthritic spurs growing into and pressing on my spinal column, I tend to lose feeling in various pars of my body, causing little things like difficulty walking in a straight line, walking fully upright, carrying objects heavier than a few pounds, etc. The degeneration of the disks in my spine help cause the spurs to temporarily slow down the response of my hands, arms, and legs. But these are things I am aware of and am trying to do something about.
My husband suffers from problems of the urinary tract and–as one often hears on comedy shows–difficulty with urination. I have noticed over the past few years that he is walking much slower than he used to. He was never terribly coordinated, but now he has even more difficulty lifting or carrying items weighing over 20 pounds. His energy level for physical activity has never been high, so it is difficult to tell just how much his overall movements have slowed.
These types of things are fairly normal among the elderly, and don’t necessarily suggest health problems. Although I write about our own health concerns, I am also thinking about my mother’s recent death. She had been living with my sister and brother-in-law for at least 15 years. During the weeks–maybe months–before she died, she had started falling for no apparent reason. She had worked in a hospital for 20 years, and was well aware of the symptoms of congestive heart failure. I doubt that she ever told her daughter and son-in-law the symptoms, and maybe didn’t want to. Before my father died of a heart-related condition about 20 years ago, I heard the difficulty in his breathing months before he died. Because I lived 3000 miles away, I made it a point to take time off from work and fly out to see him, knowing it would probably be the last time I would see him alive, figuring the aneurism was letting him know to be prepared. My mother knew why I flew out and was angry with me, in part because she was in denial about his condition, and in part because I supported his decision to decline a possible life-saving surgery–I didn’t encourage it, nor did I want him to die; I simply respected his decision and tried to get Mom to back off. The problem with the potentially life-saving surgery was that (at that time) there was a huge risk that he would be left a paraplegic, a condition that he could not even begin to think about living with. He was a proud and active man. So when I heard in his breathing the signs of congestive heart failure, I needed to have closure with him. I flew out to spend time with him–primarily him–to say goodbye in person before I could not say goodbye at all.
Although my mother did not appear to have problems with her breathing except for a cold that would not go away, and because she hid the falling from her family for quite some time, my sister did not get my mother in to see her doctor fast enough. Instead of insisting on an immediate appointment after my mother fell and could not feel her legs to get up, they settled for an appointment the following week. My mother was sent to the emergency room by her doctor immediately, and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and a few non-specific infections, one of which was from a skin condition that would not heal under my mother’s own home remedies. Thus, within two weeks of admission to the hospital, my mother died in hospice care in a comfortable and painless state. Her body gave up, but more importantly, her spirit gave up. Perhaps that is why she never mentioned the frequency of her falls to the family.
My family is not at fault for not taking my mother to see a doctor earlier. They simply didn’t know any better. My mother was a relatively private person who mostly stayed in her room and took care of her ailments with home remedies. Also, because of extremely busy schedules, the family did not notice that she was failing as quickly as they would if they saw her more frequently as part of the regular family gathering. But the family has scattered all over the country, and only my busy sister and brother-in-law remain. On top of all this, my mother had kept forgetting to charge her phone, so I had been unable to reach her for well over a month. Maybe if I had heard her–maybe–I would have known she was ailing.
This is not the time or place to talk about a weird psychic connection I had with my mother, especially since I don’t really believe in them. But I had been frantic to get in touch with my mother during that entire time because I felt that she wasn’t doing well. My husband had just had emergency surgery, and I also wanted her to know that he had been hospitalized and, later, that he was recovering well. As is my sister’s habit, she sent all calls from me to voicemail and never responded in any case. It turned out that my brother-in-law got a new phone, so the calls to him on his old number were not getting through, either. I stopped writing emails and IMs to my sister for the same reason I stopped calling her some time ago. So it was not until a few days before she had her doctor’s appointment that I finally spoke to her on the phone. All she told me about was the falling; she never mentioned the other problems, although she was unusually quiet. For the first time in years, I was doing all the talking and she just said a few words. When I spoke to my husband about her falls later that night, he immediately suspected congestive heart failure (he teaches medical school students), and we were anxious to find out more about her condition as the days progressed. Not until a day or two after my mother’s hospitalization did I find out how ill she had actually become.
The problem was the lack of knowledge; the family could not understand the importance of the symptoms my mother was displaying (or, perhaps, hiding). If an elderly parent, relative, or friend is living with you, make certain that you read up to learn about signs indicating the individual is getting ill. Knowing the signs could improve the quality of life for the individual, and might extend or even save the person’s life.
A good place to learn about symptoms of diseases of the elderly and the signs that accompany the problems is webMD.com . There is an entire section devoted to the elderly, with many easy to understand articles on symptomology, general health, exercise and diet, and almost any other health topic you can think of related to the elderly and elder care. Our population of senior citizens–especially those living on their own–is growing rapidly. Even if you only visit an elderly relative or friend once or twice a month, know the signs of common diseases of the elderly, including things like what malnutrition or dehydration looks like. And of course things like pneumonia could look or sound quite different in an elderly person than in a younger one. Learn what you can so you can be more of a help to an elderly relative living with you or alone. The information you learn could save a life.
Maybe there actually is a relationship between the frailty of an elderly person (even if it is not apparent) and the delicate feathers of an eiderdown… .
Submitting from the great state of Texas,
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