Older Parents and the Mathematics of Time

On my late afternoon trail run at Birchwood Lake and the Tourne yesterday, I was listening to the most recent Jordan Peterson Podcast. I know many folks, including some of my good friends, find Peterson controversial or distasteful. I mostly find him interesting and often thought provoking.

On the podcast, he said two things that struck a cord with me.

The first is that one of the sad and cruel ironies of life is that it is structured so that we often confront the greatest challenges when we are least equipped to handle them.

As some of you know, my mom is suffering from dementia resulting from the deterioration of the microvascular structure of her brain. It has largely stripped her of her short-term memory and ability to process new information. A conversation with her now isn’t so much a conversation as it a volley of tangentially-related stories that she has told us 100s, if not 1,000s, of times. If I told her I had a terminal disease, she in all likelihood would tell me a well-worn story about a time when one of grandparents was sick. Or, she might tell me for the 100th time that she still has all her body parts and has never had surgery or broken a bone, something she would be sure to remind me isn’t true for me and my brother and my 20-something niece. She is the Alan Iverson of grandma’s, a trash-talking nanny. She most likely wouldn’t think to ask what the disease is, how long I had to live, or how I was feeling. The dementia has also made her paranoid. She changed the locks on her house so that neither I nor my brother have keys. She insists she won’t visit either of us ever again because she is worried that we won’t let her return home. She thinks that we want to steal her money. She periodically calls to demand that I return items like chainsaws that she has dreamt up that I took from her house.

Visiting with her is alternatingly sad, frustrating, and exhausting. It is easy to feel irritated. It is easy to want to check out mentally.

But, she is less well prepared to face the challenges she faces now than at any time in her life. In six months, she will face bigger hurdles. And, she will be even less well equipped to clear them. In a year, two years, three years….her problems will be greater and her tools to attack them with will be even less adequate.

Somehow, in some way, thinking about it this way feels helpful. It doesn’t make it less sad, but it does make it feel less frustrating, less exhausting, less helpless. It is comforting to know that I am better prepared to assist her as she travels down this dark road than I have been at any other time in my life. I am fortunate to be able to help.

Peterson also talked about how it is often helpful to precisely quantify the time we have left in life for some task or activity. It changes the value and orientation we have to that time. He gave the example of the time he has left with his parents.They live several thousand miles away. He only sees them a couple times a year. Typically, he sees them for a couple of days at a time. The are in their mid- or late-70s if I remember correctly, so he might have 15 more years with them. The math makes the reality more stark and more real: two days on two trips a year for 15 years means he has only 60 days left with them.

The math for me too is dire. We probably have 10-15 years with my mom. Given her disease, the lack of assistance and medical care she is willing to accept, and the level of deterioration in her brain already, it is likely that for the last years of her life she will be there in body but not in mind. If we get 10 years, I will consider myself very lucky. We visit 3 or 4 times per year, typically for a couple days. That is 60 to 80 days in the best case scenario.

I hope that I can better keep this math in mind when I am hearing the same stories again and again. Or, when I am trying to tell her something important or meaningful and she interrupts with an unrelated story she has told me numerous times. Or, when I am frustrated because her paranoia makes her suspicious or angry.

On a more positive and uplifting note, here are some pictures from our trip to the farm down the street from my mom’s house on our trip to Ohio.

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