Somewhere on the midnight highways leading home to my older brother’s memorial service, I temporarily set aside thoughts of his death to confront the oncoming future. He wasn’t going to be around to care for my parents.
He’d passed unexpectedly, and the impact of the loss radiated outward to those around him with profound and far-reaching force. He was my mother’s oldest son, but growing up in different households had helped foster an amicable distance between us that we regretfully never made the necessary efforts to close.
So, during the week between his death and his memorial service, while our mother, our respective fathers, his wife, and his children were completely consumed with grief, I had occasion now and then to think beyond the next ten days. Among the dishes delivered by family friends, and in those quiet hours that book-ended the consolatory visits of the day, I allowed the realities of the future to sink in.
I let it pass without mention until a few days after the memorial service when it seemed appropriate to everyone that I should return to my life states away. “Before I leave,” I segued as gently as I could, “perhaps we should talk about what happens next.” It couldn’t have been less clear to my parents to what I was referring.
My brother had always been the sensitive, compassionate, family-oriented one. He’d been the one of my mother’s three children to settle locally into a comfortable rural-suburban life. He was the one who paid weekly visits and who helped with those homeowner tasks just a little too difficult for my 74-year old father to handle entirely on his own anymore.
I had always been the isolated wanderer, opting for an exchange program in Japan during my 11th grade year just to escape my small town. I followed that up with a 12-year trek around the world as a member of the military following my high school graduation. I returned to my hometown for a decade while my children grew, but ended up 10 hours from home and completely on my own again a few years after my divorce.
My younger sister has her own life, her own small children, and her own challenges hours away from my parents, and she does not appear to be a viable option for their future care. So, apart from leaving them to fend completely for themselves or putting them in the care of strangers, that brings it back to me.
My parents are only 65 and 74, but both have long-term health issues, and they are not as able-bodied as the fittest of their peers. They live in their own home, and they do a great job of tending to everything in their daily lives. It’s really only those infrequent, involved, strenuous projects with which they sometimes need help. The more difficult of the routine challenges (snow removal, laborious yard work, seasonal maintenance) are becoming more and more formidable, though.
The unfortunate passing of my brother comes at a coincidental time. My lease in my far away city is up, and I was considering moving anyway. The prospect of my settling permanently back into my small hometown is appealing to no one, though, as past attempts have shown that I tend to wither and devolve there. Years of travel to and residence in nearly every conceivable environment have taught me that I’m most comfortable in a city of around 100,000 to 200,000 people with a larger metropolitan area, a scene entirely unfamiliar to my small-town parents.
Despite our various preferences, we eventually arrived, through contest and compromise, at a set of agreed separate but complementary living conditions for each of us. Armed with these concrete parameters, I set out on my hunt for qualifying cities and traveled with my parents to assess the best among the options. Even in the most charming of cities, though, their objections were evident and numerous.
Urban settings were unfamiliar and intimidating to them. They had trouble navigating, and the number of businesses, people, vehicles, activities, and options was overwhelming. They squirmed at the frequent noises and wrinkled their noses emphatically at litter, construction, and the unsavory reminders of urban poverty. In the hearts of these less than monstrous cities, the simplest of daily tasks seemed herculean to them.
I tried in vain to reassure them about their concerns and to redirect them to areas outside of downtown where they might be more comfortable. I tried to patiently explain how a more populated, developed area could offer them more support and convenience as they age than a single family home in a small, sprawling village situated no less than twenty minutes from everything.
It wasn’t until we found them the perfect 55-and-over apartment building in a gorgeous historic seminary that I realized the problem wasn’t really location or environment at all. They themselves describe the massive main building as looking like a castle. The grounds are more than picturesque, dotted with ponds, surrounded by woods, and framed by a large, lazy river. The property sits outside of town, but the apartments offer nearly every convenience imaginable, including shuttle services and onsite health care. My parents are in love with the place and all it has to offer, but I could tell there was still a distinct reluctance to accept it as a future home.
Yes, my parents are from a small town, but they’ve both lived happily in other environments. Yes, they enjoy their little house, but they also know it’s getting harder for them to thoroughly attend to it. Yes, they appreciate the familiarity of home, but they also love seeing and doing new things. Yes, they’d be leaving people behind, but there’s not many of those people left, and they’ve done it plenty of times before. So, what’s the real problem?
They don’t want to age.
In fact, they don’t even want to think about aging in the future, because thinking about it makes it seem more real now. I’m not trying to rip them out of their life and their home before they are ready, and I’ve stressed to them over and over again that they can stay in their house as long as they like. I just don’t want to get to the point where they suddenly must relocate without having given it any previous thought. If the time isn’t now, that’s fine, but let’s at least make plans for the future, I say.
Still, they’re reluctant. They’re unable to stop framing the future with current conditions. When I point out that there may come a point when they may not be able to drive or to get around as easily, they argue that they still can now. When I express concern about them being left alone in their small town, they reference their aging friends and relatives who will at some point be vacating the area and seeking assistance for themselves.
I’m not interested in taking away any of their independence or activity. Time, however, may. My grandmother lived with her children for decades before she passed, and she enjoyed a long, comfortable senior life at home. I’m trying to construct a future for my parents that offers the best combination of both that independence and that type of dedicated, loving, familiar care when it’s necessary.
It’s been a slow and emotional process facing the future, but I think we’re making progress. My parents have enjoyed middle age in close proximity to their siblings, and I can’t fault them for being reluctant to leave that behind. I’m still gently reinforcing the idea that someday things are going to change, and the two of them are slowing warming up to the idea. As I was writing this final paragraph for a piece I’ve told them nothing about, my mom said to me out of the blue and in a cheerier voice than I can doubt, “I’m really starting to get excited about this move!”