What mother lives to be 103? Maybe Rose Kennedy and the Queen Mother. How could I be so lucky? We tried an assisted living situation recently, but she did not like being surrounded by old people, half-deaf and half-blind, and the 30-day “respite” care was cut in half. She had lived better at home — under my care — in the large, rambling house in Cambridge in which she had lived for nearly 70 years. She has no ailments except old age. She takes no prescription drugs except a sleep potion. I am the fourth child, the dutiful one, the last born, the most available.
I returned to Cambridge from New York City when she was 92, never imagining that she would live so long, with her life force undiminished. I pursued my freelance activities from an office in the old house. But my sister who lived in Cambridge and helped look after her died of cancer, and my other siblings, living in Manhattan, could have been living in Shanghai or Timbuktu as far as helping out. My son was in college in Oregon. His mother lived in Georgia. When my dog, my closest pal, my conduit to the neighborhood, passed on, it was just my mother and I.
My mother remains stubbornly alive — opinionated, headstrong, loving, driven. But her body is betraying her. She can still climb the stairs to her bedroom on the second floor gripping the bannisters — but not for long. She can still dress herself. But her eyes are dimming. Her hearing is bad. Her gnarled fingers strike the wrong keys on the computer board, provoking outrage.
As her body slowly submits, she bewails the fact that she has lived so long, now deprived of her pleasures — reading, writing, painting. Yet she insists on her independence, and I provide it as much as I am able. You can’t just dump your old mother.
But our estate planning was based on less optimistic estimates of life expectancy. The house on the edge of the Harvard campus may now be worth millions, but banks refuse to extend credit. If the house is sold before my mother’s death, capital gains taxes will be enormous. Each child hangs on to his or her meager nest egg. Yet elder care is expensive, and my mother could live for another five years. Then there is the question of my own mental health, my life limited and encumbered by her life, which could engender bitterness in the fainthearted.
There are more than 80,000 centenarians living in the United States today, a number that will double or triple in the next 10 years. Eighty-five percent are women. My situation is not unique.
What am I to do? The experiment in assisted living proved to be a costly failure. There was no “respite” for either of us. My mother struggled despairingly with the new TV remote control and electronic telephone and cavalierly dismissed the food — except for breakfast — as revolting. She was not used to apartment living with elevators and long hallways. This was a first-class facility, with kind and caring employees, but she was perhaps too old at 103 to start anew. When psychological breakdown seemed imminent, I brought her home.
The sounds of a blaring television, of a walker dragged across the floor, the constant small requests, the repetitions, the interruptions — life has returned to normal. I am now investigating forms of home care.
Let me tell you, there are no good solutions.Andrew Schlesinger is author of “Veritas: Harvard College and the American Experience’’ and co-editor with his brother of “Journals: 1952–2000 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’’