Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Who Goes First? Reflections on the Seasons of Life

Palm Sunday began for us with a glorious worship service at our church, where young children from age 2 to early teens paraded up and down the aisles waving palm branches while our Praise Band sang a glorious anthem regaling Jesus' arrival.  It was heartwarming - and moving - to see these little ones in such numbers glorifying God.  I reflected on how blessed I am that God has seen me through the challenges of the past months, and now my grandmother is safe, healthy and happy in her new residence.

The rest of our day was equally good... a delicious lunch at a local restaurant with my husband and his mother... an afternoon nap... and a good, relaxing Sunday.  But all of that changed as my husband and I sat down for dinner.  The phone rang... an urgent message from a friend of mine... please call him immediately.  Since he and I are mutual friends of my cousin, Carla Lou, I feared something had happened... perhaps to Carla's dad, my cousin Carl, who is 87 and has recently undergone a major surgical procedure to repair a hernia.  Carl is also in the early stages of Alzheimer's.

I phoned my friend Scott, and he began to talk about Carla, a friend named Mark, a hospital, a brain bleed... and it was all running together for me.  Carla lives in Columbus, Ohio.  Was she in Arkansas?  I had heard she was coming... but then I heard she wasn't going to come, after all.  Was her friend injured?  Did Carla need a ride to her dad's?

Finally, Scott was able to make me understand that my cousin, Carla Lou, age 46... young, vibrant, beautiful Carla... had suffered a brain bleed and was in grave condition in a Little Rock hospital.  She was sitting on the patio with friends when she became incoherent and then collapsed.  She had been in our state for a few days, attending the 25th reunion of her college class.  She was planning to make the hour-long drive from Little Rock on Monday to visit her dad, and possibly other relatives and friends.  She never got here.

Carla Lou died in the early hours of Monday, April 18th.  Because her classmates were all talking about this on Facebook, Carla's brothers and I scrambled to get things in place to tell her dad - and my grandmother.  Carla's maternal grandmother, Bessie, was my Mam-ma Polly's older sister.  Just to complicate matters - and possibly confuse you - Carla's paternal grandmother (her dad's mother) - and my great-grandmother were sisters.  We are "double cousins."  I spent a lot of time late into Sunday night on the phone with Carla's friends and her two older brothers.  Early Monday, I dressed and headed for the ALF to deliver the news to my grandmother before someone from our little community called and told her over the phone.  My cousin was sitting on his dad's doorstep to deliver the news in person that Carla was dead.

I got to the ALF as Mam-ma finished her breakfast.  We sat and talked while she ate, and then I said, "Let's go to your apartment... I have something to tell you."  We walked back to her room, and I sat her down and delivered the news.  She cried, but she took it very well, all things considered.  I think there is an extra blessing  for older persons... a sort of insulation against the shock of such horrible news.  For my cousin, Carl, the shock of hearing that Carla was dead, along with the frailty brought on by his age and illness - not to mention his Alzheimer's - all served to temper the impact for him.  I am not sure how much of this he will ever be able to fully internalize... and that's a good thing.

We memorialized Carla Lou on Wednesday with a graveside service attended by dozens of friends and family members.  Carla's fiancĂ©, David, had flown in Sunday night on a chartered plane to be by her side before she passed.  David's two brothers had flown to Arkansas to be with him for the service - and another service held in the evening on the college campus of Carla's alma mater.  Carla's ashes were buried beside those of her mother and paternal grandparents.

When you say the numbers out loud, they don't make sense.  My cousin Carla celebrated her 46th birthday on February 27th.  She wasn't supposed to die before her dad... or my grandmother.  But of course, we don't get to choose the circumstances - or date - of our death.  And while my husband and I have made what we feel are thorough and detailed plans in the event of the death of either one of us, the death of my cousin Carla Lou had us once again reviewing our plans... crossing T's and dotting I's.

My husband has always maintained that the odds are in favor of him dying first.  My mother has maintained for several years that her health conditions will result in her passing well before her husband.  I have maintained to both of them that we simply cannot be certain of this.  I think now they might be starting to believe me.  I know this has sparked discussions among several people about planning for "the day" when they are no longer alive.  It's tempting to bury your head in the sand and pretend that day will never come - or to say, "My kids and family members can figure it out when I'm gone."  But that is simply wrong thinking - and selfish, at best.

I am so thankful that I got my grandmother settled.  Should something happen to me today, I know that her care could now be far more easily managed by someone else... and her needs would all be met.  I am thankful that we have settled her estate, streamlined her paperwork and finances, and settled her in a place where she is happy, healthy, and safe.

But others have not made the same arrangements... and some are finding out firsthand what the results of a lack of planning can be.  A friend of mine was called to her winter home in Michigan recently to attend to her father, who was not well and refused to see a doctor.  My friend's parents divorced years ago, and she had developed a closer relationship with her mom... but when she was in Michigan during the summer, she had lunch with her dad about once a week.

My friend found things worse than expected, and her dad was declining rapidly.  In the course of about three weeks, things continually became more critical, and ultimately, my friend's dad was hospitalized and placed on Hospice.  Her brother flew in from Arizona to assist her with decisions, and together they selected a skilled nursing facility for her dad.  Two days later, he died peacefully.  The rollercoaster of emotions and challenges have certainly tested my friend.  Thankfully she has had the support of her brother... a true blessing.  Often all of the care and decisions fall to one family member, regardless of how many are capable of helping.

Every situation is different.  Often the seniors are either not capable of making rational decisions... or they are uncooperative.  They worry about people meddling in their business - and stealing their money.  They think they are invincible and "it will never happen to me."  Or they simply choose not to think about these things at all and "let the chips fall where they may."  But for those who face the challenge of making decisions and hard choices, this can be a daunting, scary time.  When you are suddenly faced with making decisions on the fly about long-term care, medical procedures, Hospice, funeral plans, and more, the challenges can be overwhelming.

So my advice to each of us today is... GET YOUR "HOUSE" IN ORDER!  Make plans... spend the money to get good advice and make a will or get a living trust.  Get a Living Will, investigate Power of Attorney, and consider pre-arranging funerals... or set aside money to cover the cost when needed.  The elderly aunt of a friend told her, "I don't need a will... the lawyer said when I die he will handle everything!"  Of course he will!  He stands to make big bucks off of probate and all of the work needed to settle an estate without a will.  A Living Trust generally costs less than $2000, and it is worth every penny!

Pre-arranged funerals lock in the price.  If you select a "package" for $5000 today and live another 50 years, the cost to your family will still be $5000.  There may be a few incidental add-ons, such as flowers, but the basic cost of the funeral will not rise... and your loved ones will not be faced with making decisions about your wishes at what is already a difficult hour.

If you have children in your care, the need for you to make thorough plans is doubled.  You not only need to help your senior plan for his/her future... you need to plan for your own - and that of your children.  Now is the time for action... not when someone falls over dead on a patio. This is one of the most selfless acts of love you can demonstrate.  What are your plans?

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On Thursday, April 21st, my grandmother's ALF hosted an Easter luncheon.  Guests were invited, and Mam-ma's friend, Ruby, and I attended.  There were decorations, a lovely ham dinner, party favors, and more.  Everything was delicious and served by staff and volunteers.  Here are a couple of pictures.  I am in one photo with Ruby (left) and my Mam-ma (right).  In the other photo, Ruby and Mam-ma are on either side of Mrs. Ruth Garner... my third grade teacher, who also resides at Southridge.  And the last photo is of Ruby and Mam-ma - two best friends.  Don't the ladies look great?

1 comment:

Mark said...

How sad about your Carla Lou. So young.

Mrs. Garner! She was not my teacher, but I remember her and I believe she was my brother's teacher.

This whole post reminds me that getting old, although better than the alternative, stinks. We can only hope we have loved ones in our lives to help it go the best it can.