Elder Care: Lessons Begin in Grammar School


Does anyone besides me grow Crayola Screamin’ Green with envy when the newspaper publishes lists of supplies for parents to buy before school starts each fall? Lists for kindergarten students trigger my fiercest school-supply envy, maybe because my parents kept me home until first grade. Kindergartners trot into Fairfield Community Schools toting pointy-end scissors, a beach towel, watercolor paints, a rectangular pink eraser, 12 no. 2 wooden pencils, 10 glue sticks, and 64 crayons. Separation anxiety dissipates quickly in the face of supplies like those, I suspect.

Teachers are clever critters. A friend of mine who fearlessly acquires new skills (like tiling her bathroom) revealed recently how her first-grade teacher ignited her lifelong commitment to learning. Handing out primers, the teacher told her young charges they could take the books home and read one chapter. “Don’t read further,” the teacher commanded, “even if you can.” Decades later, my friend’s eyes glinted with guilty joy as she recalled disobeying her teacher and reading the whole book that night.

For many of us, learning to drive a car carried that same heady glee. Wrestling the massive steering wheel of my dad’s clunky Rambler station wagon for the first time, I felt irrepressible pride at finally cruising onto the blacktop alongside fellow adults. Today, of course, I’m terrified when I look out the windshield and spot what appears to be a ten-year-old driver chatting on his cell phone while barreling towards me in the oncoming lane. That sight’s not quite as scary as my new optometrist; he looks like Doogie Howser, M.D. My previous doctor resembled TV’s Mr. Rogers. Dr. Kjonaas didn’t really croon soft, instructive songs in my ears, but during the 22 years I visited his office, I always left thinking he did.

Time passes, and suddenly the lessons you need to learn are ones you’d rather skip. How do you move ailing elderly parents out of the home they love? How do you carry on a cheerful conversation with your mother when she’s suffering from dementia and thinks you’re someone else? How do you plan a funeral, write an obituary, and deliver a eulogy while mourning the death of someone you loved? That eager, creative first-grade teacher who deftly tricks youngsters into acquiring even more knowledge than they actually need isn’t standing beside you when you need to learn lessons like these.

On second thought, maybe she is. People facing eldercare issues can locate many helpful resources simply by reading. For example, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Eldercare Locator website (www.eldercare.gov/) features brochures such as “Staying in Touch in Crisis Situations” and “Housing Options for Older Adults: A Guide for Making Housing Decisions.” Fact sheets on this website cover topics like “Hospice Care,” “Home Modifications,” and “Assisted Living.” By entering your elderly relative’s zip code, you can also ferret out the closest Area Agency on Aging. Their social workers understand eldercare issues and can help you assess which local resources would be most helpful for your loved one’s situation. The Eldercare Locator website also provides links to many pertinent non-profit organizations, like the Alzheimer’s Association.
Remember show and tell? Don’t be shy. Share what you discover about eldercare issues with friends. When you do, you’ll probably find that, like you, many of them face eldercare challenges, too. Besides commiserating, they’ll have tips for you, as well.

Elementary school teachers recognize the importance of recess, and you should, too. Leaven hard lessons by making time to learn fun things. Conversing with my Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother was easier when we had something new and exciting to share. Donning a flashy coin-studded hip scarf, I danced to Near East music in the cafeteria of her assisted living facility. I also learned to knit. My mother selected a yarn color (pink), and I made her a scarf and hat. Flawed though they were, she never tired of showing them to fellow residents and staff. Resurrecting shaky music skills from my youth, I memorized songs a friend had played at my wedding and banged away on the facility’s old upright piano for her, as well.

A few times we attended her chair-exercise class together. Sitting side-by-side we rotated our shoulders, nodded our heads, and wiggled our fingers to raspy Stone Age music. My mother, a retired seamstress, enjoyed the facility’s craft classes. Picturing her painting, gluing, and coloring the artwork we hung in her room lessened the separation anxiety that struck each time I left her. Today, nearly three years after her death at age 90, it still does.


© 2009 Cheryl Fusco Johnson.