Five Things We’re Doing So Our Kid Won’t Hate Us When We’re Old

 

People talk a lot about making memories with your children when they’re young. But lately I’ve been thinking about the memories I do NOT want to leave my daughter with.

The experience of aging, and of having aging parents, has changed dramatically in the space of a single generation. Our lifespans are much longer than they once were – but our ‘healthspans’ are not. Caring for aging parents was once a few months or, at most a year or two, at the end of their long full lifetimes. Now, it can go on for years, or even decades.

Anthony and I have spent a number of years now being caregivers for very ill parents in a medical system that is not set up to provide any kind of real support, and still operates under the assumption that the adult child (most often the daughter or daughter in law, if we’re honest) will be able to take an elderly parent into their home and provide unpaid fulltime care. (Because, I guess, everyone has a large barrier free house, unlimited resources, a strong back, and no need to work?)

We have been doing this for so long, and some of it has been so searing, that the reality, feelings and memories of this kind of caregiving have actually obscured my experience of our parents as parents. I can barely recall the mother who sewed me a fancy dress every year for Christmas; the father-in-law who brought me my favorite cookies every time he visited when I was pregnant. But I sure can recall having to fight with hospital staff to make them understand my parent lives alone when doing discharge planning. I remember the awful feeling that we were drained, exhausted, ill, broke, and in over our heads and nobody gave a shit. They just wanted to check off the box on their discharge forms. I remember giving until I was empty and then being criticized for not doing more or doing it right. Never hearing ‘thank you.’ Waking up in the morning and thinking that if I never saw another day, it would be a relief. (Therapy and medication are the reasons I’m not there still.)

The impact this has had on our family, Anthony’s sibling’s family, and our collective health and wellbeing can’t be overstated. And I know for sure I don’t want memories like these to overwrite Adri’s experience of us as her parents. This is what we’re doing to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Actually admitting that one day we might not be able to care for ourselves. This seems to have been the hardest step for our parents, and it’s the one that kept them from doing the planning that might have spared them, and us, the worst of it. Not because they were clueless assholes; this generational shift came as a surprise to them too. Based on their experience with their own parents, they had no idea they could outlive their health by so long. We have the benefit of that knowledge, so we are planning for old age, including the possibility that we may need help at the end of our lives – and we’re planning like our kid is not part of the picture. First, because you never know; but mostly, because this is the way we ensure that the things we have experienced with our aging parents don’t happen to her. Everyone is responsible for taking care of themselves; even when you’re old, and even when you have kids.

Buying long term care and life insurance. NOW. Medicare does not pay for nursing homes or long term in-home care, folks. Does. Not. Pay. So if you don’t have some other way to pay for it, you will be forced to spend every penny you’ve accumulated in this lifetime on your care (that includes draining your retirement accounts and impoverishing your spouse if you’re married) until you’re destitute and qualify for Medicaid. And Medicaid nursing homes are usually not easily mistaken for the Ritz. Long term care insurance is relatively cheap and easy to get; it protects our assets AND ensures that, should we need care, we have a choice about who provides it and where. We can use that coverage for care in our home, where if we relied on Medicaid, we may be forced to be in a facility. As for life insurance, we used an online calculator to find out how much we’d need for our family to maintain our current standard of living if one of us died. We’ve found term insurance to be the most affordable option, and ours includes a clause that we can access those funds early in the event of a terminal diagnosis.

Funding retirement before college. If your parents were able to pay for your education, good on you, and on them. But that was not our story – we are still paying off student debt, and college is a LOT cheaper than end of life care, so we fund our retirement and insurance before we fund her college. You can’t get a loan or a scholarship for assisted living. She can thank us later.

Being nice to the spouse-in-law. OK, we’re not here yet, but it’s our plan. Unless we die suddenly, despite all our planning, it’s likely our kid’s spouse is going to have some kind of impact on our old-age care, and vice-versa. So our plan is to not be assholes to this person. (Closely related: expressing kindness and gratitude for anything Adri or her spouse do for us.)

Communicating our expectations to our kid. Even now we tell her that we do not want or expect her to be the one who cares for us in our old age – that we are planning and insuring ourselves for that need. Granted, everyone is going to be in a different place on this, especially if they haven’t had the experiences we have. But we want her to be nothing but our beloved child, right up until the end. We want to be free to continue to enjoy each other, without her feeling responsibility for our care. It’s also a privacy and dignity issue for me; if I can’t dress and toilet myself, I’d rather it be done by someone I’m paying to do it, than by my husband or child.

We are still in the thick of it, sandwiched firmly between the needs of our aging parents and those of our young child, so there may be more added to the list before we’re through. How do we cope? That’s another conversation entirely.

The time I gave up sugar and it pissed me off

Every time I’ve seen my doctor for the last four years, she’s asked me if I’m ready to give up sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Usually, I laugh. I mean, I’ve seen the articles that recommend giving these up to improve PMS, perimenopause, and menopause symptoms; they’re everywhere. But the advice was so ubiquitous it always irritated me – like telling depressed people to get more physical activity. It felt like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: no, this is BAD, stop talking to me about vegetables.

But this spring, Anthony and I read this article in the UK magazine The Guardian. It tracks the research on cardiovascular disease and obesity from the 1950s and lays out step by step how research was cherry-picked to make fat the bad actor in these conditions – and how some of the same researchers who were bribed to do this ended up in the highest levels of authority on nutrition in the US, and based our dietary guidelines on that faulty research. It’s a conspiracy worthy of Big Tobacco.

And then we read the book Fat Chance, by endocrinologist Robert Lustig. This book is mentioned in the Guardian article and carefully lays out exactly what sugar does to your body.  No, you’re not safe if you’re skinny, and yes, it’s terrifying. It explains how and why sugar is now in every-fucking-thing that you don’t make yourself, so we’re getting loads more of it than we even know. And how our (screwed up) metabolisms actually drive our behavior – until it’s no longer a matter of choice. That last part was important to me; it removes the shadow of judgment from people who are struggling with weight or health.

Both our families are rife with metabolic disease, and we are watching some beloved people battle through its final stages. It’s ugly and awful; you don’t just die, you spend years in misery (along with your family) and then you die. So we just….quit. We stopped drinking soda, mostly stopped eating sweet stuff. We looked at what we ate that was processed and contained sugar (spaghetti sauce, bread, yogurt, cereal, frozen meals) and, if we really liked it, found lower-sugar alternatives or made homemade versions without sugar. But that’s all we did. We didn’t go crazy; I eat dark chocolate almost every day. We still have some kind of treat or dessert about once a week, we just do it intentionally instead of mindlessly after every meal. Pizza still finds its way into our house about once every week too. And we didn’t address (yet) the quality of our other carbohydrates – we still ate white bread, white rice, pasta.

So what happened?

Anthony happened. I mean, he HAPPENED. Doing nothing else but avoiding sugar, he lost about ten pounds but looks like he lost more. A few weeks ago I came across a photo of him from a year before we gave up the white stuff. I was shocked; right now he looks ten years younger than he did in that photo. He’s sleek and glowing and annoyingly energetic, and it happened to him fast – by the end of the second month.

I complained to Anthony that I wasn’t seeing any visible changes (dammit, I want to be sleek and glowing and annoyingly energetic!). He blurted out, “Oh my God, your moods are so much better when you don’t eat sugar.” And then looked like a deer in headlights. (Fortunately for him, he said this to post-sugar me, so he lived to tell the tale. Poor man.)

At my annual physical, when I had been at this a little over three months, I weighed in about four pounds lighter than I was a year ago (my weight was within normal limits when I started), and all of it seemed to have come off my midsection. My cholesterol had dropped to 162. And the perimenopausal breast pain that was no longer controlled by medication and would wake me up in the night for two solid weeks every month, was gone. (Premenstrual bitchiness still solidly intact though; I guess one can’t have everything.)

Are we imposing this on our kid? Oh hells no. Primarily because we’ve always just offered what we thought were reasonable food choices and let her make the decisions on what and how much. But also because she’s an adolescent, and demonizing or forbidding sugar would pretty much guarantee she’d be shotgunning Mountain Dew every time she was out of our sight. I figure her sugar consumption is being reduced simply because there’s less of it in the food we eat at home, which is something. And, fortunately for us, she’s an adventurous kid who loves to cook and try new things, so she’s getting interested herself in finding new recipes and new ways of eating things we love.

I admit, part of me is pissed that the benefits were so clear. I kind of wanted it to be bullshit so I could just go back to eating the way I did before. To believing I was doing pretty well, and that if I’m not significantly overweight I must be healthy. But the farther in I am, the less I want to go back. I was surprised at how relatively easily this has become a way of life. I still have days where I crave sugar (especially after I’ve just had some – a little seems to turn on the switch and I want more), but really only the first few days were difficult. I take L-Glutamine as needed; it usually makes a sugar craving go away in about ten minutes.

My doc is thrilled and a little smug. But she better keep her hands off my coffee and wine.

Origins

If you ever did anything right, I’d FAINT!

I was eight. My bedroom in our trailer was so tiny we couldn’t both stand in front of the open closet. So I sat on the bed, sweaty palms on the purple comforter. She stood, screaming, her face contorted in rage.

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU?! YOU CAN’T BE THIS STUPID!

She ripped a pair of pants from a hanger in my closet. I had hung them up wrong: hadn’t matched up the side-seams before putting them on the hanger. I actually couldn’t remember being told before this that there was a wrong way to hang up pants, but I knew enough not to say that out loud. That night, I started a new page in the diary I had gotten for Christmas, the one with the little brass padlock: Things I Won’t Say To My Children.

I was ten. I got up and dressed on a Saturday morning, while she slept the long sleep of the depressed, the very ill. I watched cartoons, eating cereal in the dusty living room by the light of the flickering TV and what little daylight filtered in through the heavily curtained windows. She couldn’t see well in bright sunlight, so the windows were always covered, the air stale. I went next door to my grandparents’ house, a bright oasis of order and kindness, where Saturday mornings smelled like fresh coffee and cinnamon toast and Murphy Oil Soap. Soon there was a phone call from her, enraged. GET. HOME. NOW.

I hurried out, letting the screen door slam.

She was waiting in the kitchen. Screaming, she backed me into the corner between the trailer’s front door and the tiny pantry. She was so angry she wasn’t coherent; I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. In my anxiety, I must have grimaced, which started a fresh tirade: DO YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY!? 

No. No, I did not.

Eventually I pieced together what I had done. When I fixed my cereal, I had left open a drawer and a cupboard door in the kitchen. With her limited vision, she had run into the drawer; bumped her head on the open cabinet door. The things I did wrong could hurt her. There was no such thing as a small mistake.

I was 12. Her diabetes was uncontrolled. I  heard noises from her bedroom, coming through the paper-thin panel walls in the middle of the night. I already knew I would find her unconscious, covered in clammy sweat, moaning and shrieking, nightgown rucked around her waist, eyes rolled back in her head. Hypoglycemia: extreme low blood sugar. It happened once or twice a month. Before, I would call my grandmother when this happened. She would come over, revive her, comfort me, make things right. But now that Grandma was sick too, I was on my own.

These days, there is a highly concentrated glucagon gel made for hypoglycemic shock, that can be administered safely even if the patient is unconscious. These days, there is 911. Not then. Not there.

In my panic, I forgot exactly what Grandma did to bring her around, but I knew she had to have sugar. In the daytime, she carried sugar cubes in her purse to eat when her blood sugar was low. I found the yellow Domino’s box of sugar cubes in the kitchen cupboard (close the door) and carried them to her bedroom.

She lay on her back, eyes glazed and staring. When her mouth opened in a moan, I put a sugar cube on her tongue.

I waited. I could see the small, grainy cube in her slack mouth, unmelted.

I knew if she did not get sugar, she could slip into a coma she would never wake from. She could even die.

Nothing.

I used my hands to close her mouth, rubbed under her chin, hoping some reflex would kick in and she would chew, swallow. Wake up.

She inhaled for the next moan, and the cube disappeared. In its place, the most awful gurgling, strangling sounds.

Choking.

I was tiny for my age, about 75 pounds. I wedged my hands beneath her torso and pushed at her full-grown dead weight. Heaved. I struggled until she was on her side, and began, hesitantly, to thump her back with my open hand, like burping a baby. Still she choked and gurgled, began to thrash. I thumped harder. Harder. All up and down her back, thumping out my fear, my powerlessness, how much I loved her, needed her. How much I hated her.

Nothing as knowledgeable as the Heimlich. Just a child’s blind panic and a little bit of luck. The sugar cube flew out onto her pillow, covered in blood.

Mistakes are deadly.

She breathed easily now; but she was still unconscious, still in hypoglycemic shock, and going deeper. The moaning and thrashing had stopped; her stillness was ominous. She could still die if I did not figure this out.

A year from now I would know so much. I would know how to prick her finger and use a glucometer to measure her blood sugar. I would know how to bring her back. How to go to school on a few hours sleep. When and how to call for help if she didn’t come around. A year from now, I would be able to put on sterile gloves, a surgical mask, and administer her home dialysis treatments.

But right now, I was still a kid.

I headed back to the kitchen, opened the cupboards and stared in. Hoping for rescue, bare feet on the always-cold winter floor.

Help came in the form of a green plastic Tupperware tumbler. I recalled it in my grandmother’s hands as she stirred sugar into orange juice. I seized it (close the door), prepared the sugared juice, and took it and a straw back to her bedroom.

I heaved her onto her back again, used pillows to elevate her head. I knew what to do now. I put my index finger over the opening in the straw, trapping a bit of sugared juice inside. Slowly, painstakingly, I dribbled it into the back of her open mouth, where it ran down her throat. Never too much, or she’d start coughing and I’d have a hard time getting the straw into her mouth again.

She regained consciousness.

She began to shiver, painfully cold as she always was after such an episode. I covered her with blankets, with the dotted-Swiss bedspread, with her fuzzy winter bathrobe. I turned out the lights, returned to my own bed.

Under the purple comforter, I watched the black outside my window turn to grey.

I began to shiver, too.