During the last four months of spring, I have been to five Christmas parties. Decked in their finest green and red, the invitees change out for each bash. But the menu - cabbage rolls, green marshmallow Jell-O salad and Christmas cookies, along with the floor-to-ceiling plastic tree, remain constant.
Each party has been a small gathering of six - my mom, myself as driver of my mother, and two or three of the senior 80-year-old ladies who hail from the past lives of my mom and her best friend, Ellie, (whose name I've changed) who is the 82-year-old hostess.
We go, because Ellie was/is the consummate entertainer (In her heyday, she through multiple holiday parties from December through January.) Now, in her wheelchair and unable to walk, cook or care for herself, she still reaches out to her fast shrinking circle of friends. With the help of her round-the-clock caregiver and carryout, she pulls off Christmas in May. We go, because Ellie is alone, and lonely, and my mom is her best friend since they were legal secretaries together in their 20s. In many ways, even though she can't drive, and can barely conduct a telephone conversation because she refuses to wear her hearing aids, my mom is Ellie's lifeline.
Ellie's has a daughter. She is single, never married and in her mid-50s and lives across the country where she is a university professor. Her last visit to her mother was seven years ago. Recently, when Ellie was hospitalized for a blood clot and the doctor's prognosis is a pending more serious treatment of her diabetes and possible leg amputation, my mother called the daughter. She could not come.
I am not judging, or throwing stones, nor do I understand what might have happened behind-the-scenes in this mom-daughter relationship. I just see a lonely elderly woman who continues to hold Christmas parties that extend until May, in an effort to sit at her dining room table and share a meal with someone. It makes me ask myself: What is our obligation to our aging parents.
Maybe that is why a recent New York Times article, which explored the more sensational aspects of elder abuse, caught my eye. It invited me to explore some deeper questions about the obligations; we as grown up children of aging parents have towards their care. The story is about the high profile case of philanthropist Brook Astor whose son is on trial for conspiracy and scheming to defraud her estate. But, in many ways, it is about all of us too.
One reason prosecutors say the crime is difficult to detect and prosecute is because "the abuser is someone the elder has loved and trusted," according to Thomas Hafemeister, a University of Virginia law professor studying financial elder abuse. Who wants to see a loved one - even one who may be ripping you off - in handcuffs?
The article also explores the definition of elder abuse, beyond financial exploitation. The author says it is elusive, underreported and happens invisibly. I've often wondered about the sin of omission, the not doing something, when a need appears. Is Ellie abused? No, not necessarily. She's financially taken care of. She has a full-time professional, hired caregiver. But I think for those of us who are in the middle of life and experiencing our parents age and become more isolated and frail, we need to start thinking more about what taking care of elderly parents really means. Is it making sure that proper physical and financial care is in place? Or, is what our aging parents really need is our presence and our hearts?
It's a tough thing to think about and one that needs much more exploration. For me, the answer is donning a Christmas sweater and showing up for Ellie, for my mom, because I can, and because I care. What do you think? Please post a comment and don't forget to sign up for our RSS Feed.
-----Mary Beth Sammons