The Heartbreaking Price My Elderly Parents Are Paying For Staying Safe During This Pandemic



Much is predictable in my pandemic-shaped life.

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and deaths spiral ever higher, and I wonder if this much fear and fury can cause an aneurism. My daughter fosters another sick dog instead of doing her online college classes, and I think, at least she’s not going to parties.

And my 93-year-old mother calls after dinner with her usual list of complaints about how I’ve screwed up her grocery order.

“You got me the 8-ounce squeeze bottle of mustard, but I told you I want the 16-ounce jar.”

“Ma, they’ve been out of the jars; it’s the exact same mustard, and I got you two of them.”  

“No, you don’t understand. It’s better from the jar. They never run out of them. You’ve just gotta know where to look.”

I’ve reminded her, maybe every other day for the past eight months, as gently as I can, that I don’t “look” for the groceries I bring her twice a week. I order them online, then retrieve them via something called “contact-free pick-up.” I spend hours typing in detailed instructions, for nameless strangers who do their level best to fulfill her wishes.

I’ve explained, again and again, about the shortages. She was a child of the Depression; shouldn’t she understand shortages? 

No, she’s still going on about Mustard-gate. So I explain it all again. I’m competing with CNN blasting on her TV, so I speak loudly, slowly, carefully. But my words do not clarify, or placate.

“Why are you arguing with me?” she sputters, then launches into a rant about other fails in the grocery order: the Nilla wafers are full-sized instead of minis, a loaf of bread is slightly “smushed.” 

It seems petty, but I get it. In our Italian family, food means love, so if I mess with her food, she thinks I’m not taking proper care. So I don’t respond; I just listen. She’s always demanding, “Just listen to me!” Yet she’s still getting worked up. 

She must be having an especially rough day.

Maybe my dad slept half the day, then didn’t utter a word the other half. Maybe he refused to shower again ― has it been two weeks? Maybe she broke a dish ― she’s dropping things more and more ― and he stared, unmoved, as she cleaned it up, her arthritic joints aching while she seethed at his seeming indifference.

Maybe she wants to scream because watching her husband of 72 years slip away from her is painful. And knowing life is slipping away from both of them as they enter month nine of hunkering down in their one-bedroom apartment is excruciating.  

Her mild sniping is the tip of the iceberg of her frustration and helplessness. Letting her vent is the least I can do for her ― for both of them. It helps her stave off anger and despair. 

She seems needy, because she is in need of help. My father has dementia, and she is his sole caregiver. Her every waking moment is spent devising ways to keep him whole, present and connected ― to his identity, to her, to their life together.

Last winter, his diminished functioning and her waning stamina had finally conspired to convince her it was time to explore senior living options, or hire someone to help with his personal care. Then came coronavirus. Senior living was no longer an option; those places were deathtraps in the earliest months. 

My husband and I pose less risk, since we’re mostly at home, being high-risk ourselves. Still, our masked visits are brief, when we deliver groceries, and cooked meals when she’ll allow it.

“Only if you have enough for yourselves; only if you’re not too tired to come by,” she insists. She still wants to be the caretaker in this relationship, hates to be dependent or a burden. But she’s too depleted by her other chores. And sick of cooking after almost three-quarters of a century.

“We just need to keep the elderly and high-risk people safe at home,” say those who abdicate responsibility for containing the pandemic. My mother rages at the TV from the living room of her home-turned-prison when she hears such pronouncements.

Her once-vibrant life is the casualty of this malignant neglect. 

Her muscles and joints are weakening from disuse. His arthritic hips are nearly frozen. My parents used to walk up and down the aisles of grocery and department stores, stroll the hallway of their apartment building, walk up and down the steps when they visited my house.

Now his only movement is from bed to bathroom to lounge chair. Her locus is barely larger, extended by the 10 yards she travels from her apartment to the trash chute down the hall. A journey fraught with peril: She gets up at 6 a.m. to avoid running into neighbors. Some of them wear masks now. But many do not. They are exercising their rights.

And sometimes one of those freedom-loving, mask-less, brisk-walking neighbors comes right at her, passing so near she swears she can feel their breath on her face. She cannot move quickly enough to escape them, because she is slow and old and exactly the type of person whose space they should be respecting. 

It’s not death she fears, so much as the possibility of extended suffering, she tells me when she calls afterward. Being hooked up to a ventilator, or having some complication, like a stroke, that might render her unable to speak, think, walk. Some unbearable version of death-in-life.

Still, she resists when I offer to come more often, to take out the trash, to get the mail. She’s loath to increase my exposure, though her risk is much greater. And it pains her to give up another bit of independence. Despite stroke, cancer, dementia, crippling arthritis and other ailments, she and my father were pretty self-sufficient. Until this awful year. 

For a decade, she’s gotten a kick out of saying, “Don’t worry about us. You can take care of us … when we’re old.” That quip draws bigger laughs and more admiration with each passing year. It’s golden, kick-ass defiance now, when she’s 93 and he’s 94. 

But it also pulls at my heart, because they are fading fast as their pandemic confinement drags on. My father’s cognitive decline has accelerated, in the absence of stimulation from outings and family gatherings with lively conversation and games of Rummikub. He smiles when he sees my kids on a video call, but can’t make sense enough of their virtual presence to engage. When I visit, he can’t hear most of what I say because of the mask. 

He doesn’t understand why I don’t stay longer. Why I won’t hug him. 

I long to do it, but we all fear it might kill them. 

So I do what I can. Anticipate their needs; order and disinfect their groceries; provide cooked meals and jigsaw puzzles. Engage in this nightly ritual: murmuring reassuring sounds of assent as she relates the highs and lows of her day. He woke up late, then sat on the bed as if confused about what came next.

“He’s slowing down,” she whispers, her dread of what lies ahead palpable. “Oh, but he poured his own Cheerios and milk this morning. … And he won when we played gin rummy.”

“I won’t let him forget things,” she insists, defending her relentless quizzing and demands: that he recite his address and his children’s and grandchildren’s names, that he make his own sandwich if she places the bread and lunchmeat and mustard in front of him.

Yes, it’s tough. Unfair. I am sickened at the thought of what it costs them to live under siege, horrified to think of what will happen if any one of us gets sick.

But for this moment, they are safe; they are together.

I marvel at her fortitude. Her capacity for joy. How she’s fueled by simple gifts ― a meal prepared by her daughter with love, an unexpected call from her granddaughter, a husband who is still himself, after all. 

“When we wake up in the morning, I look at him, and I say, Well, we’re still here. So I guess it’s a good day.” 

I pray they’ll have many more good days. 

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