More thoughts on visiting the old and sick

August 11, 2010 at 10:19 am (By Pat)

St. Zita, Patron Saint of Housekeepers and Caretakers

St. Zita, Patron Saint of Housekeepers and Caretakers

I felt sufficiently guilty of my own failings in visiting elderly relatives with various degrees of dementia in the past that I couldn’t quite bring myself to comment on Amba’s last post, Why? Why?. I grew up knowing well many of my great-aunts, my maternal grandfather’s sisters. One was a little “off” her whole life, and the only thing I remember of her from my youth was trying to avoid her, because she would pinch my cheek every time I walked by, and just say very odd and random things. I only learned later that she was a fantastic cook, and I wish now that I had been more willing to face the craziness and follow her around in the kitchen. Another aunt, Le-le, was the only one of the sisters who married. Her husband died long before I was born, and she lived alone in her house for many years. I used to love to visit her house; she was fun to talk to, and she always gave me a cold bottle of Coca-Cola. But she had to go into a home for the last few years of her life. Teenage me, self-absorbed and uncomfortable with death and old people and hospitals, I think I managed to visit her just one time. I’ll always regret that.

My grandmother lived to be 93 years old (1903-1996), and was physically healthy as a horse the whole time. But the last 4 or 5 years she spent in a nursing home far from her own home, in the town where my aunt, her oldest daughter, lives. I was better about visiting granny; I would readily go whenever my mom suggested I go with her. But I was still so selfish; though passing through that town on a regular trip I made several times a year would have only taken me an hour or so out of my way, I think I stopped to visit her by myself only once or twice. I was in law school, then a young lawyer, but it wasn’t that I didn’t have the time — it just made me uncomfortable. She didn’t have full-blown Alzheimer’s. Men tend to have a fairly rapid onset of dementia, a short period of transition before getting pretty bad. Women are more likely to slowly slip down the path; that was my grandmother.

Her husband, my grandfather, was in some ways the opposite. His mind was strong until the end (he died in 1985, when I started college), but his body was confined to a bed for the last 7 years of his life. He had been a strong man all of his life, over 6 feet tall, a small business owner, a man’s man. But stomach troubles followed by a not-fully-successful surgery left him bedridden and on a colostomy bag for 7 long years, weak and dependent entirely on my grandmother for his care.

I did visit him fairly regularly, if only because he stayed at home the whole time, and I visited my granny often. But it was hard to see him like that, so far removed from the man I had once known, the man who would chew on a cigar as he gave me a penny to put in the weight and fortune machine.

Why do we tend to so avoid the old and frail and demented? Selfishness is a big reason, of course. Visiting those folks doesn’t promote our career or better our chances of getting good Christmas presents. We don’t really get the joy one gets from a stimulating conversation.

Visiting them also makes us uncomfortably aware of our own mortality. That could be me lying there, and probably will be one day. We don’t want to confront our own frailty and mortality, so we avoid reminders of it.

But I think there’s one more factor. None of us want to appear sick or weak to other people. We, and men especially, hide our weaknesses, carefully controlling the few people we allow to see them. Whether it’s FDR hiding his wheelchair from the public or a man racing to the far bathroom to vomit his guts out so his kids (and maybe his wife) won’t know how desperately sick he’s feeling, we have an almost instinctive fear of showing weakness. We know that WE would not want to be seen in a state of profound weakness.

So when we see a man like Jacques (whom I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting in real life), a strong and proud man, I think a part of us wonders whether it might not be more respectful to glance away, to choose not to invade his condition, to not view him in a condition in which we know we ourselves would not want to be viewed. This idea that we’re doing it for them joins together with all the selfish reasons for not visiting and takes just enough edge off the guilt we feel for not visiting to make it more tolerable than going to visit.

Of course, the thing is that how we feel when we DO wind up in that condition is probably far different than how we THINK we’d feel about it. Many men might think today that they’d rather be dead than confined to a bed, with a colostomy bag, for 7 years. But when they find themselves in that situation, they wind up clinging desperately to every ounce of life they can hold onto. We thus need to realize that what WE think we’d want in that person’s shoes is probably very different from what that person actually wants, today.

Elizabeth Scalia (aka The Anchoress) has a moving post at First Things about a man who visits his wife at the nursing home every day, even though she doesn’t remember him at all. Would that we all had the strength of character and depth of love that he has.

And God Bless all caretakers and all those who put aside their fears and squeamishness and selfishness to visit their friends and loved ones who need visiting.


  1. Michael Reynolds said,

    None of us want to appear sick or weak to other people. We, and men especially, hide our weaknesses, carefully controlling the few people we allow to see them.

    I think that’s right.

    An incident a couple of days ago. My wife and I are entering a covered parking lot. A middle-aged guy, maybe my age, maybe a year or two older, trips, lands hard, blocks traffic.

    My wife was driving and told me I should get out and help him. I didn’t. First because I’d seen it from the beginning and knew he had just tripped and would be up in 30 seconds. Second because I knew the last thing that guy wanted was to go through the rest of the day feeling like an old man who had to be helped up by me.

    Had it been a kid or an elderly person, sure. But a contemporary, already feeling his age, already wondering how much longer he had to remain active and healthy? Nah.

  2. amba12 said,

    That’s a good example of what Pat said — when sparing yourself and sparing what you either know or imagine to be the feelings of another come together. In this case, Michael, you pretty well knew.

    Men know, maybe, with a male knowing that goes back way before being human, that to reveal weakness invites being jumped and beaten by another male, younger or stronger or more desperate. I remember watching a herd of elephant seals in Baja. The young males were just waiting for the old guy to slip, then one of them was going to attack him and defeat him, drive him away and take over his harem.

    Pat, you triggered so many thoughts about being young and being old and everything in between, the different perspectives, that I don’t know where to begin to express them. There is a bond between old people and children. Then sex and ambition kick in and drive, drive, drive us from 15 to 45 or 50. Old people and children have in common being largely free from those fevered drives. (Well, I can’t speak for old men.) It’s really a sort of wise and pleasant condition. You can see more than just that which you desire. Instead of being driven through life you’re sort of carried along by it, like a leaf on a stream. Life sort of loses its focus and point, and you miss that, at first. But then it turns out there is a point, which is just living. While you still can.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: