The Slippery Slope, Part Three
by Julia Sneden
If you are caring for an elderly parent, the best advice I can give is to find a friend who is in similar circumstances. Sharing information, swapping the tales of funny moments (or even the occasional horror story) can make all the difference between drowning in a sea of self-pity, or finding the strength to continue your efforts to see your parent lovingly through to the end. A sense of humor, even a macabre one, is definitely a sanity-saver. In that spirit, here's a funny story:
About three weeks ago, my mother took a shirt out of her overcrowded wardrobe, shook it out and sniffed: "Well, I guess it's been ironed, but not well ironed." I resisted reminding her that I'm the one who presses her shirts, or pointing out that it wasn't the ironing that was at fault, but the crammed closet. I told myself firmly to forget it; it wasn't worth griping about. The next day, however, the shirt showed up in her hamper, clean but balled up. An inner demon took hold of me. I was darned if I was going to iron the fool thing again. So I decided to send the shirt to the laundry the next time I took in my dry cleaning.
The following week was her birthday. A few days earlier, when I was buying myself a new watch battery, I spied a something called a "talking clock." Aha, I thought, that's just the thing, as Mother can no longer tell time on an analog clock and cannot read the numbers on the digital clock. Some years back, a stroke affected the optic nerve, and took away a quarter of her right visual field (both eyes). This plays hob with her depth perception, among other things, but what makes the digital numbers impossible to read is their gridded, squared-off shape. There are no curves to give clues between 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 or 9.
Mother has also lost the meaning of am/pm, and continually asks me whether I mean am or pm when I tell her I'll be there between 2 and 3. The "talking clock" has a large bar on the top, and pressing it brings a chime followed by a female voice that says, for instance, "5 pm." It seemed like the perfect present for my mother's birthday.
The clock has other functions controlled by tiny buttons on the front, such as alarm, chime selection, and a function that makes it speak on the hour every hour from 5 am until 12 noon, but those buttons and names were so small I figured she wouldn't be able to read them - and any way, I suggested that she not touch them, but use only the bar on top.
I hadn't really considered the problem of her short-term memory loss. Of course she could not remember about the bar, nor find it if she did remember, and of course she proceeded to turn on all the possible functions. Every day for a week, I came in to find the clock stuffed in a drawer, wrapped in a sweater, hidden in the hamper, etc., and my mother in a state, saying things like: "I can't stop the damned thing from talking" (she had set the automatic on-the-hour, 5am-noon button) or "It doesn't keep good time"(she had hit the buttons that reset the time) or "It makes funny noises" (she had changed the chime).
We did try, she and I. I taped over the other buttons, one by one. We practiced and practiced hitting the top bar, several times each day when I arrived and several more times before I left. But after a solid week, she just couldn't retain the information. At last, I took the clock back, with her blessing ('"A good idea, darling, but They just haven't worked the bugs out yet").
We were at the mall, returning the clock, when it occurred to me that she no longer had a birthday present from us -- so we shopped, and found three nice shirts for about the price of the clock, thanks to January sales. She was very set up by having something new to wear, but of course buying something new for the very old entails more than a few alterations. As the padding between the vertebrae dries up and is worn away, the spine shortens. Mother used to be 5'4" tall. She's now 4'8". In addition to that problem, the arthritis in her hands makes buttoning small buttons very difficult. I've tried to suggest pullovers, but cervical arthritis of the neck makes pulling anything over her head quite painful. So buying something new means that adaptive measures must be taken. I'd be happy to let the store do the alterations, but Mother can't stand long enough for a fitter to mark the garments. By now I've learned exactly what needs doing, and while it's not altogether easy, neither is it rocket science.
First I (a) shortened the shirts by 3 inches, (b) cut off all buttons (cuffs included), (c) sewed them back atop the buttonholes, (d) sewed half a snap behind them, and (e) sewed the other half where the button had been. Two days, 24 buttons, 48 snap halves, and five sore digits on my right hand later, I was done. I put the shirts in Mother's wardrobe with much relief....but then I took her washing out of the hamper, and there amongst the dirty clothes was the shirt from the laundry, the "not well ironed" shirt I'd had pressed professionally. It wasn't dirty, but it had three safety pins next to three buttons. This is usually a signal that one of the snaps has pulled off (she tends to rip off her shirts with playful glee when getting ready for bed, because snaps are so much easier than buttons, but after a while the snaps pull loose). This time, however, the snaps were there. They had just been squashed flat by the laundry's presser, a device that turns out beautifully ironed shirts but gives no quarter to the male half of a snap! So I was back to the needle and thread with my sore fingers. I 'm afraid she'll just have to put up with "not well ironed" from now on.
Which brings to mind a dour little ditty that has been bandied around in my family for at least a hundred and fifty years:
"There's too much of worriting goes to a bonnet;
There's too much of ironing goes to a shirt.
There's nothing that's worth all the work you put on it;
There's nothing that lasts except trouble and dirt."
You'd better believe it!