DURING ONE OF MY REGULAR VISITS to my 91-year-old mother’s nursing home in North Andover, I noticed she was slightly askew in her wheelchair. No big deal — one of the facility’s excellent health care aides propped her up. But as anyone caring for an aging parent can attest, even minor problems can quickly become big ones if not caught early. And as my mother’s only local child, I am the designated catcher of such problems, not to mention for more serious crises that can pop up 24/7.
Compared with other folks I know who are caring for their aging parents, I’m lucky. My father left enough money for my mother to stay in her own apartment and then move into a good nursing home, with private aides to offer additional companionship and assistance. I have a wife who oversaw her own mother’s care to help me with my mother’s care, as well as a brother who, though he lives 700 miles away, visits often and is always available to help deal with problems (as a doctor, he can also handle the medical clutter).
But as I pass Social Security age myself, a nagging question keeps surfacing as I walk those long nursing room corridors: Who will be the designated catcher of my problems when I no longer can care for, let alone advocate for, myself?
Like about 1 in every 5 boomers, I am childless. While my wife and I hope we remain physically and mentally able to manage each other’s needs, actuarial realities suggest that one of us (probably her) will end up alone. So who will be there then to oversee which pills are taken and when? Who will intercede with the insurance company, research the medical options, handle the paperwork? Who will change the light bulbs?
Most nagging of all, will anyone care enough to at least try to find something better for our final days than an old people’s warehouse of blank stares and blanker days?
As the boomer bulge moves farther along the age pipeline, it’s great that a lot of attention is being paid to issues such as their finances, health care, and housing needs. But this who-will-take-care-of-us question is as daunting as it is haunting. After all, those new options would mean little to me if I no longer had the capacity — physical, mental, or financial — to know or take advantage of them and I had no one to do so on my behalf.
We all say we want to avoid ending up in a nursing home, even a good one. That’s what my mother said. But absent someone actively seeking a viable alternative, that’s where I’m heading, too.
I was discussing this conundrum with a longtime friend who is 63. It’s too bad you’re divorced, I said, but at least you have two smart and caring daughters who will eventually oversee your care. Her answer was, in essence, Oh, yeah? She noted that, like many people our age, she and I grew up with a grandparent or another older or failing relative living in our homes. Their presence imprinted upon us a generational mandate that, like it or not, children are responsible for their elders. But with old relatives now much more likely to be living far away or in an institution than in the downstairs den, that ancient pattern has been broken.
Technology, from Skype to remote medical monitors, is making it easier for distant children to keep track of aging parents and for old folks to live longer on their own. Planning, such as authorizing a health care proxy, can also help us prepare for when we will be physically or mentally incapacitated.
Yet to work effectively, all the new tools — and even the best planning — require a human connection, a real someone who cares enough about me to be willing to exercise that proxy. To make sure I’m sitting straight in my wheelchair. There is no app for that.
BY THE NUMBERS
Segment of the 65+ US population that is widowed, divorced, or never married
Phil Primack is a writer and editor based in Medford. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.