For the past several years, my step-sister had
been taking my mom to see the ophthalmologist. They had their
routine; Cindy would drop her off for the appointment and then pick
her up after it. Then, last spring, Mom called to ask if
I could step in because Cindy was unavailable to help her. I
was actually pleased that I would have the opportunity to see what
the doctor had to say.
As a private geriatric care manager, I spend my
professional life guiding families through the often twisted,
treacherous journey that aging parents and their frantic children
share. Often families are separated by distance and it’s my
job to be their eyes and ears – an advocate for their parents and a
source of support for their caregiving children. Here I was
beginning the journey myself, though I admit that I didn’t know it
at the time.
I sat through the eye exam with Mom and it
seemed fairly routine. Then the doctor said to her, “You know, Mrs.
Fastman, as I have been saying for the last three years, you should
not be driving.” I almost fell through the floor, overwhelmed by a
wild array of feelings. I recall panic, fear, anger, and
embarrassment, to name a few. Here I was, a care manager whose
own mom had slipped through the cracks. As I recall, the
ensuing conversation went something like this:
Beverly: So doctor, what is the reason
that my mom should not be driving?
Doctor: It’s the cataracts!
Once they are removed, she should be okay.
Beverly: And how long did you say this has
been going on?
Doctor: It’s been the last three years.
Beverly: Did you report this to the
Department of Motor Vehicles?
Beverly (to Mom): Tell me why you never
mentioned the doctor’s position before.
Mom: Bevy, he never told me until
today that I had cataracts! You know, I can’t understand why he
keeps playing with the eye chart to make it hard for me to see! I
see just fine. (Yes, it really happened that way.)
Driving is a huge issue. As kids, getting
that driver’s license means independence and freedom and a leap into
another stage of life. The threat of losing this ability
hits people hard, with good reason. It also propels them into
another stage of life, but one that isn’t nearly as exciting and
expansive. It’s often experienced as a painful loss of
personal identity, and most importantly, a change in the way they
will be relating to their families and others. The experience
is often one of dependency and a constriction of life. Yet,
faulty drivers stand not only to injure themselves, but they also
may hurt innocent victims. Here was a woman putting others at
risk because of her denial of the need for surgery. And it was MY
As I look back upon the signs, I must admit that
they were there for me to see. For example, when she stepped
outside, she was afraid that she couldn’t see the ground and she
could not see where to walk. She held on to people and at least knew
that she could not drive at night. But I, like so many others
of my generation, have great difficulty seeing what is before us.
Nor do we want to. We, like our parents, want things to stay
the same. We want our parents to continue on as we have known
them. For me, I can’t even fathom a world in which my mom
isn’t a phone call away. I still need her to be my mom.
Because what’s underneath the feelings I have described is a whole
lot of love and fear of loss.
In case you are wondering what happened, I spoke
from my empowered geriatric care management position of knowing,
which is the place to which I typically go when I am afraid. I
told my mom in no uncertain terms that she had two choices:
She could either fix her cataracts or stop driving. I also
admonished the doctor for not alerting the Department of Motor
Vehicles about enabling a patient to drive when the licensed
professional is aware of the dangers. By law, doctors could
lose their license for not reporting their findings in this type of
situation. For some reason, my mom did not argue with me.
Knowing her, I am still not certain why she listened. She told
me that she would never allow that doctor to operate on her because
she didn’t like him. I asked her whom she did like; she actually
told me about a doctor whom “everybody in the building uses.”
After checking him out, I concurred that it was a great idea.
Five weeks later, she underwent surgery. Shortly thereafter, my mom
was again behind the wheel, only this time she could actually see.
I guess you could say that the visit to the
ophthalmologist was an eye-opening experience. A lot has
happened since that doctor’s visit, but that was clearly the
incident that let me know that I had officially become my mother’s
keeper–her caregiver. We’ve been on a hair-raising ride
together since then, but there’s still one thing that I know:
I love my mom and I will do whatever it takes to get her the best
possible care, to protect her autonomy, and to spend this time with
her because this is the time that matters most – to both of us.
I will have to deal with the challenging feelings that these
experiences precipitate just like everybody else. Before I was
ever a geriatric care manager, I was my mother’s daughter.
Tips for Caring
It is of the utmost importance that elderly
parents are accompanied to their physician visits by an attentive
third party every so often, on a regular basis. This person
must listen with an objective, impartial ear to exactly what health
issues are discussed. Understanding the complexities of chronic
health conditions requires someone who knows how to ask the right
questions. The issue is one of understanding the current health
status of the individual, as well as following through with the
appropriate course of action. Asking questions and following
through can sometimes be the difference between life or death.
There are many reasons why our parents need help
in this area. Sometimes it’s an issue of deteriorating ability
to understand what’s happening, brought on by memory problems or
comprehension problems. It can also be related to the psychological
challenge of accepting the implications of what is being said.
Any of us would find it hard to “hear” these things. Keep a
record of your parents’ visits – what the doctor has said and
recommended. If you cannot accompany your parents, ask someone
else to do it, such as a family member or friend, or consider the
services of a professional geriatric care manager. It’s
amazing what you can learn.
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