Seniors taking care of seniors, once rare, is now more common. The result: Seniors in their 60s and 70s being caretakers for superseniors in their 80s and 90s. Sometimes the younger ones need more care than the older ones.
With 57% of American households now childless, many seniors won't have children-caretakers. Women aged 80 to 84 had a childless rate of 12% in 2010; by 2030 it will be 16%. Some octogenarians will have a parent over 100. Who or what will replace nonexistent children? Does "Robocare," maybe built by Roomba, sound appealing? I guess they will vacuum too.
We don't have a robot, but just spent 18 days taking care of my wife Barb's parents. We started by driving them to a funeral. Seniors go to lots of funerals. We traveled to a desert cemetery in New Mexico just below the Wagon Mound. The hill— which only looks like a wagon if you have been on the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail in sweltering heat for too many days — was once a trail landmark.
Travelers would stop at Santa Clara Spring, scene of the 1850 Wagon Mound Massacre. Nearby is Santa Clara Cemetery. Possibly 169 years old, it had no grass, some sage, dirt, gravel and casually maintained fencing. This service wasn't quite like others. There was an urn buried, not a coffin. My wife, Barb, lost two aunts last winter. Services were delayed so more could come. Cremation has made this possible. Rushing to a funeral while grieving has always been difficult. Heirs save needed money for senior requirements because cremations cost less.
I sat in our truck with my mother-in-law — she's 94 and struggles to walk — and looked at different generations. Some so feeble I was afraid a wind gust cascading down the Wagon Mound would topple someone; others, young and energetic. Barb's father, at 93 surprisingly spry, walked around talking to scores of relatives. I doubt he heard much. Very deaf, but like so many geezers, he refuses hearing aids. Several days later we brought them to our home.
With parents over 90, you might as well forget about almost anything but caretaking. My in-laws' remarkable health has been compromised by age. They fall sometimes. Walkers and canes become faithful companions. Stairs are the enemy. Your only trips out of town may be funerals. Getting in and out of a car may take five minutes. Nevertheless, we kept them active, taking the superseniors to restaurants and shopping, meeting our friends, and even brought them to Charlie Dwellington's for the Tuesday night blues jam. We had to get up much too early because these ranch-raised seniors have never learned to sleep late. Barb and I talked hours into the night about how to caretake and how we felt. Constant helping and staying alert wears you out.
They're back home now with their usual caretaker. We told them they could stay or visit again, but they love their home. When your mobility is threatened, when you can't do things you want to do, have to do, once did easily, feeling vulnerable is inevitable. You cling to things you know. For them, it is the house they lovingly built 60 years ago. I can't blame them — I might feel the same way soon.
For now, we await the next funeral. Everyone, of course, is a candidate and Barb's large extended family is rich in old and young alike. Too soon, we will take more trips to New Mexico and the Front Range. The Wagon Mound will be revisited. We faced our futures — frustrated by failing bodies. Barb seeing her folks differently — until recently surprisingly independent — brought sadness. With Barb limping on failing knees, she soldiered on and I helped all I could. Sometimes I was the only one without a cane or walker. The comparison made me feel relatively healthy. Soon Barb gets a total knee replacement and I'll be her caretaker, a senior taking care of a recent senior. My world feels topsy-turvy.
Childless seniors have to help each other and maybe their parents. I expect future superseniors without children will band together to co-help, perhaps sharing housing. For now we are exhausted, awaiting Roomba Robocare.
Gene Goffin is a retired lawyer who lives on Glade Park. Tell him about your senior life challenges by sending an email to email@example.com.