Com­ing to terms with mom’s de­cline

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - TELEVISION/EXPLORE - BY CAROLYN HAX Wash­ing­ton Post

Dear Carolyn: The hol­i­days were great ex­cept ... my mother looks like she is dy­ing. She had a sig­nif­i­cant fall the week be­fore. Went to the hos­pi­tal. Some­how man­aged not to break any­thing. Was given an­tibi­otics for a “rag­ing” (doc­tor’s word) in­fec­tion. She and my dad man­aged to get to our fam­ily gath­er­ing over six hours’ drive away.

She looked aw­ful. She was in pain the whole time. They drove home in stages do­ing some vis­its on the way.

They live in a con­tin­uum-of-care place and have friends and ac­tiv­i­ties and help with med­i­cal is­sues avail­able at the pull of a string. But I just can’t get over how aw­ful she looked. Ex­hausted. Pale or rather ashen. Not re­new­ing her lip­stick, which she has al­most been re­li­gious about since I was a kid.

I’m hav­ing a hard time. I’ve known this level of de­cline was com­ing for ages. But I maybe thought that mov­ing to the new place with more as­sis­tance would be a magic cure that got us a few more years. Help?

Can’t Get Over It Dear Can’t Get Over It: I’m sorry your mom is sick, and that it brings painful feel­ings sooner than you had hoped.

You sign off by say­ing you “can’t get over it,” though – when you can, and al­most cer­tainly will. Re­mem­ber, we are built for this. We are meant to die and we are meant to wit­ness death. Since we are meant to love, too, that means al­most ev­ery­one will even­tu­ally feel the dev­as­ta­tion you got your first real glimpse of this sea­son.

I say this hop­ing your mother may have re­bounded by the time I fin­ish this an­swer; we are also built to heal. And peo­ple can have a look of death when they’re ill.

I also know I might al­ready be too late. So I’m go­ing to give you the an­swer for all po­ten­tial out­comes.

Re­nounce “magic.” The more we in­vest our­selves in an out­come, the more we set our­selves up to lose. And, more im­por­tant – the more we miss of the life we have as we wait for a dif­fer­ent one to come true.

This goes be­yond just in­volve­ment with par­ents in de­cline: Take steps be­cause they’re nec­es­sary and/or help­ful, but don’t ex­pect any­thing of them be­yond their face value. See any fu­ture ben­e­fits as a pleas­ant sur­prise. Think jour­ney, not des­ti­na­tion.

Choose hous­ing with ex­tra as­sis­tance be­cause you know your mom needs ex­tra as­sis­tance, not be­cause you think it’ll buy Mom X ad­di­tional years.

This is a sub­tle change in think­ing, but it’s ev­ery­thing. It changes your ori­en­ta­tion from se­cur­ing a spe­cific fu­ture out­come to im­mer­sion in your present.

A des­ti­na­tion fo­cus is what tells you your mother is dy­ing and you weren’t ready for this yet and you can’t bear it. A jour­ney fo­cus is what tells you your mother’s cir­cum­stances have changed, so you need to change, by do­ing A, B and C in­stead of X, Y and Z.

Like their road-trip­ping six hours for any­thing – that needs to go.

She needs you in a dif­fer­ent way now, and you need her. Help more, lis­ten more, visit her more, be more present for her in gen­eral. Com­mit to ex­ist­ing right where you both are now. Even if it hurts.

This at­ten­tion to in­her­ent value ver­sus spe­cific fu­ture pay­off is par­tic­u­larly use­ful in dif­fi­cult times but can ap­ply broadly, from ed­u­ca­tion to ac­tiv­i­ties to the peo­ple you keep in your life.

I sin­cerely hope your mom is OK. But whether she is or not, pres­ence is the surest way through.

Dear Carolyn: My neigh­bor, whom we used to be friendly with, sud­denly dropped us. It was at the time my teenage son was hav­ing prob­lems with drugs and the po­lice had been to our house a few times (noth­ing vi­o­lent). This was very hurt­ful at a very low point in our lives, when we would have ap­pre­ci­ated a friendly face and some sup­port.

Fast-for­ward 10 years. Son has set­tled down and lives else­where. This neigh­bor has sud­denly started be­ing friendly.

Her hus­band works out of town so I sus­pect she is lonely.

My hus­band says, “Just be friendly back.” I can’t for­get how hurt­ful it was to have them turn their backs on us and even pre­tend not to see us. To be­friend them again would be to say, “It was OK you de­serted us at the low­est point in our lives.” What would you do?

Sud­denly Dropped

Dear Dropped: I hope I’d tell my neigh­bor, “I’d like to be friends again. But what hap­pened 10 years ago? It felt as if you turned your back just as we needed friends most.” Don’t draw con­clu­sions when oth­ers can speak for them­selves.

Email Carolyn at [email protected]­post.com

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