I rarely write something private, but here I am. For the past five days, I’ve been the sole caregiver of Jenny, a childhood friend who lives in a small town in the mountains of California. Jenny is 70 years old and has a rare form of cancer. Her condition is terminally ill, and she knows it. At this point, she was confined to a hospital bed in the living room most of the time. The aftermath of the cancer and some treatments proved so painful that she was often unable to lift herself up to walk 15 steps to the bathroom. Sitting is the most painful position for her, and Jenny is a big woman, so the toilet is not her friend.
What does “caring” look like
When I say “nursing,” I mean the full spectrum: bedpans, urine bags, and frequent bed linen changes, as well as preparing and serving meals, washing dishes, laundry, and maintaining the tiny house she lives in. Her cancer is in her pubis area, which is also the source of most of her pain. This required catheters and a lot of care for the entire area of her body. She can do some medication and sanitation on her own, but most of that falls to the caregiver.
She also has to drive several times a month to the cancer center, which is nearly two hours away. In addition, she had to travel to a second medical professional in another town, which was also two hours apart. It was very difficult for her, but she needed extra pain medication to cope with the ordeal, another task she relied on from friends, family and/or neighbors.
Jenny is a single old man. She has no partner or children to help with these issues. She does have a large family of siblings, nieces and nephews, and I’m doing informal rotations with female members of the family and other friends who love her and volunteer to travel by plane or car to help.
Jenny has been very independent all her life and I’m sure she would not like to be so dependent on the help of others, but so far she has been reluctant to pay for any professional help. She recently made a concession and now has an assistant who comes to work four hours a day from Monday to Friday, a great comfort to those who served as caregivers on the days she came in.
Jenny lives a humble life, but she is not poor. She’s a smart, talented, degreed professional. She has a career as a scientist and has saved enough money to retire at 62, assuming she has at least another 20 years to live, and possibly more money from consulting and writing. Her Social Security benefits are ample, and she receives a small pension from her job. She insisted not to spend her money on herself because she wanted to leave it to her nieces and nephews as part of her estate. The niece and nephew in question are doing fine on their own. They occasionally take turns taking care of their aunts, and if asked, they may happily hope that Jenny pays an outside professional to do the aforementioned grunt work.
Having researched, written about, and talked about single-person ageing over the past decade, I had to ask myself what I would do in this situation and how would I advise other single-person ageing individuals to predict the impact on this level of care. need. In my opinion, it boils down to a rather rough question: Do you really want your friends and extended family members to empty the potty and wipe their butts? Do you want this event to be their last memory of you? My personal answer to both questions is a resounding “no”!
Can this situation be avoided?
Whether you’re a single senior or someone with family support, you probably don’t want family members or close friends to perform such personal hygiene tasks.
How did this happen to Jenny? She made several strategic choices in her life that had a big impact on how she ended up in this situation. The initial choice was to live her life in a remote location. Small towns are often quaint, quiet, and lovely, but they often do not have readily available medical specialists and may only have a small health clinic to provide medical support. So Jenny’s cancer was quite advanced before it was discovered.
Jenny lived alone and chose to be alone for most of her life. She didn’t know many people in town. She also chose a small town with a rather remote location. The nearest city of any size is nearly a two-hour drive away. Her closest family members are her three sisters. They both live in the urban area where Jenny grew up, a 4-hour drive away.
This isolation is risky for anyone in the future, but especially for seniors who walk alone. Jenny’s only options at this point are in skilled nursing facilities closer to her sisters or round-the-clock home care provided by professionals, which may not even be available in her small town. Her current situation is unsustainable. Two of the sisters who did most of the work were burned to the ground, living their lives away from Jenny Town. Friends are also fed up with the rotation, coming up with more and more unfilled reasons to rescue the sisters. Jenny is very grateful for the care she’s been given, but at the same time, she doesn’t seem to notice the damage she’s doing to her relationships by imposing this practice on friends and family.
I realize that there are quite a few people in this country who are financially insecure and will be completely dependent on their families for care if they get sick. However, most people have choices, and my recent caregiving experience has made me acutely aware of the importance of those choices. It’s unclear what will happen to Jenny in the next few months as she continues to battle this cancer, but those of us involved in this story have seen the kind of dying we don’t want. We may not be able to Avoid outcomes that include intensive care, but with careful planning and making healthy choices, we can control who provides care.