“It is not how old you are but how you are old”

On Friday I will celebrate my father reaching his 88th birthday.

He is old. At 80 he still skied and played tennis, lived on his own and was active and alive.

Eight years on and he no longer participates in the skiing and tennis which he loves. He occasionally wander around a few holes on the golf course. And he no longer lives alone. He has a younger woman. She turns 88 in September!

Dad stoops now, his once tall six foot height a youthful memory. His hearing, always questionable, is appalling. Which means he misses out on a lot of life around him. But he still gardens, drives himself, attends U3A meetings, sings in the Cathedral choir, serves on the odd committee, and goes to concerts.

At 88 he is old, but still living.

Three months ago my 86 year old mother-in-law was old but still living. She too drove herself to the Cathedral where she also volunteered once a week. She pottered around in her garden and cooked all her own meals. She attended book group meetings and a music appreciation group, as well as being keen to keep up with her family and friends.

In May she had a heart attack. It was decided she needed an operation to insert a new valve into her heart via an artery. While waiting for the surgery the family cared for her at home. Someone slept over every night, made her dinner and then breakfast in the morning. We did her shopping and laundry. A cleaner was provided.

In June she had her surgery and it went remarkably well. She was discharged and sent home. Nurses were provided to shower her but the family committed to up to six weeks of convalescent care.

Except things did not go according to plan. The valve operation was a brilliant success and her new valve allows her heart to pump the right amount if oxygenated blood around her body.

However being 86 years old and having been brought up not to discuss such issues my mother in law failed to mention that she was not pooping. At all.

Severe constipation impacted on her whole well-being. The compacted bowel put pressure on the spine which gave her intense back pain. She began to need more drugs. Morphine which slows the bowel down more. Her bowel movements were discussed far and wide. She had to drink laxatives, eat kiwifruit and prunes. She didn’t like it.

Her nursing care was increased with the family staying over each night and visiting each afternoon to make sure medication was taken. We organised Meals on Wheels. Nurse called three or four times a day.

Pam got grumpier. Always a Pollyanna sort of person now she complained about everything.

“I am sick of blancmange for dessert.”

“I can’t/won’t get up for breakfast.”

“I don’t want to go outside and sit in the sun.”

The family were getting tired. It was three months and Pam’s health was deteriorating. Then she fell. Another visit to hospital.

More pain, this time in her groin. Doctors diagnosed sciatica. It was eventually discovered she had cracked her pubis bone and finally admitted to hospital for 10 days of bed rest.

“I have nothing to look at.”

Once a day she was taken to the physio gym and made to “work out”.

“The physios are mean to me.”

Today she is being discharged back to home. Back to nurses visiting and family picking up the slack.

Yesterday I was with her as the occupational therapist went around her house advising us what to do to minimise fall risk. I was chosen as being “the nice daughter in law”. Move unnecessary furniture to allow more room for the walker frame. Taking away piles of magazines or boxes of apples and potatoes. Making room in her bedroom for a commode for night time use. Installing extra grab handles. Taking away floor mats and rugs.

Pam was unhappy. She sat on her kitchen chair, slumped.

“I don’t want to sleep in a different room/take away the pot plants at the front door. I need the chair in my bedroom/mats at the back door.”

I was reminded of another girl in my family. My daughter. Sulking because as a toddler she wasn’t getting her own way. Stubbornly refusing something even though she must have known she was wrong. Hating change.

We used to have almighty rows with her. My mother-in-law thought we were soft – until she had to care for Juliet for a week while her younger brother was ill in hospital one Christmas. Then she said, “Sometimes that girl just wants the bottom brick off the chimney.”

So yesterday I said to Pam, “You want to live at home so you need to compromise on a few things to make it happen. It sounds as though you are wanting the bottom brick off the chimney.”

I think I just lost my status as the nice daughter in law.

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