A Slow Decline

The Golden Years

Walking Into Retirement

Ah, how wonderful to slip gently into retirement, with nothing but good health and time to kill!

For many, that could not be further from the truth. No savings, poor health, early onset dementia, physical limitations or worse, are the hallmarks of an aging population. Rather than dancing into the twilight, many stumble, crawl or just fade away.

I have had many debates on whether it is worse for an aging parent to be diagnosed with Dementia/Alzheimer’s, or to be mentally sharp, but unable to have the physical ability to look after themselves.

What We Anticipate

My mother was in the latter group. A brain tumour in her early 30s, caused life altering changes to her physical being. A broken back in her 20s while healed, years later came back to haunt her. Debilitating arthritis limited her ability to even open her hands near the end. She spent the last several years of her life confined to a wheelchair, unable to adjust her glasses, let alone shift positions in her wheelchair. She was completely at the mercy of the nursing staff – and privately praying to die.

Her mind was a sharp as a tack until near the very end. Unable to participate in the most basic of tasks – nursing home bingo, eating, changing the tv channel, scratching an itch – even answering the telephone became impossible.

My former In-Laws were in the other category. Two of the kindest, most wonderful people you could meet, they developed Alzheimer’s within a short time of each other. Having led an active and vibrant life until their mid to late 80s, they no longer knew those closest to them, including their children. Yet they were physically capable of doing many of the things my mother could not.

Mom’s situation was very difficult on her emotionally and intellectually. It was heart wrenching to see her so frustrated. My in-laws were seemingly happy in their own world, confined to happy memories of the past, but unfamiliar with the present – making it exceedingly difficult on their children to cope with parents they loved deeply – but unable to bring into the land of the present. Lost souls. Yet too healthy to pass, leaving a trail of despair and sometimes hurtful words, littered among their loved ones.

What Reality is For Too Many

The Great Debate

Why do we insist on keeping our loved ones alive to endure a life they have no desire to be part of? If our pet is old and in discomfort, we ask the vet “is he in pain? I don’t want him to suffer. As much as I love him, we need to put him down and out of pain”. We can’t ask an animal if they want to live. We take that difficult decision upon ourselves to do the right thing.  However, we can for our loved ones. Why is it so difficult to let them go, if that is their wish, or if they have no quality of life?

Are we wanting to keep them alive for their sake, or ours? There are many debates for and against euthanasia. Valid points on both sides of the argument. What I believe may not be what you believe.

On visiting mom at the nursing home over the years, it was obvious that I was the exception, not the rule. Some residents seldom had visitors, if at all. They were sad, lonely, despondent. Day after day, sitting in a wheelchair, watching the clock tick their life away in the slowest, most excruciating way. No visitors. No one to advocate for them. No one to help make decisions for their care. No one to converse with them and keep their mind sharp – and help make the time pass – creating memories for them to enjoy for the next few days. Slowly but surely, they slip into a world known only to them.

The nurses were wonderful in my mother’s home. They made her feel loved and special. But there were times that I had to step in to ask questions. Several years before her death, my sister Kim and I noticed that she was constantly drowsy- at one point so much so, that she was unable to even lift her head. I had to cup her chin to get her to look at me. We questioned the nurse as to whether her meds had been changed. We were assured they had not.

The problem persisted. She lost significant weight. Increasingly concerned, one evening soon after, Kim and I made a surprise visit after dinner. Mom was lying in bed in the fetal position, unable to communicate. Thinking we were watching her starve to death in front of us, we confronted the nurse on duty. She said “your mom is old and is dying”. Logic told us that this had happened much too suddenly. We wanted answers and we wanted them NOW!

Mom Enjoying Some Sunshine with Karen and I

The Importance of Advocating

Told we could not talk to the Dr unless we saw him while he was on rounds – several days from then – we asked to talk to the head nurse. To my good fortune, I had coached this kind woman’s son in hockey. She intervened and agreed to set up a meeting with the Dr the next day, to answer our questions. The nurse that had told us she was dying was asked to attend as well.

It was soon established that her meds had in fact been changed 2-3 weeks earlier. They had an adverse effect with the cocktail she had already been given. It made her drowsy to the point that she could not stay awake to eat, and therefore lost so much weight. She was too weak to eat – a vicious circle.

The Dr immediately changed her meds. In a very few days, she was able to communicate again, regained her appetite and was soon back to normal. She lived another 7 years.

Knowing how difficult those last 7 years were for her, I question sometimes whether I should have just let her pass – she was likely days away. But I could not do that, knowing that she was literally starving to death. She had to go on her own terms.

My point is, that most nurses are wonderful. Most are there for the right reasons. We are all human and make mistakes. But if there is no one to advocate for the frailest among us, many die without explanation – simply because they are “old”. It is after all much easier to medicate and ignore, if there is no one to monitor subtle changes.

For a nurse in that environment, these are subtle changes. So gradual and so common that it is easy to overlook. Without regular visits from loved ones, there is no one to notice and to ask questions or to advocate.

A Shrinking World

It was an exercise in the human condition to watch my mother’s world shrink as she aged. She was 68 when my father died and fairly vibrant. She loved to travel but hated to travel alone. Soon after dad died, she sold their home in Vienna and moved to a condo in Tillsonburg to be closer to Kim. It was a lovely condo, with lots of space, an elevator to her 2nd floor residence, private parking and best of all no outside maintenance.

A few short years later, after experiencing some health problems, she sold the condo and moved to an assisted living building in the same community. As she downsized, she sold or gave away many belongings that no longer fit. Shortly after, she had a brief bout with epilepsy, and lost her ability to drive. Her world was shrinking.

A year or so after that, she fell a couple of times. It became apparent she needed more assistance and she moved into the nursing home where she would spend the remainder of her life. Farmhouse, condo, loss of freedom through losing her license, assisted living and finally a one room domicile, housing all her most beloved belongings – TV, bed, books, a few pictures and clothes closet for her most cherished items.

In Mom’s last several years, she would often say to me “Kent, why is God not listening to me? I pray every night to slip peacefully into HIS arms. I want to die. I am tired. Why is HE not listening?” Heartbreaking words from someone that had a challenging life.

Our world gets smaller as we get older.

But our lives are no less significant! As a society we are quick to ignore the aged and most vulnerable and forget all that they did for us in our lives.

Live life and make memories. Our world shrinks all too quickly.

Don’t forget about those that have given so much in better days.

Be an advocate.


9 responses to “A Slow Decline”

  1. Hi Kent my brother and sister and I are going through the same issues with our dad it’s tough time my brother see him a couple times a week and have found that he has to keep a eye on dads health it seems like dad slips through the cracks of care it’s not that they don’t care we think staff has so many people to watch and I agree it’s no fun getting old and having to watch a parent fade away take care

    • Sorry you guys are going through this with your Dad. It is hard to watch and you feel helpless. As a society we are quick to ignore the most vulnerable and forget all that they did for us in our lives.

      We owe them so much more.


  2. Death is heartbreaking for those left behind no matter when it is. My sister always says Mom made it easy for us. She chose when she had had enough.she did not want what the future had in store for her so she got to choose when she was done. It wouldn’t have mattered when it was it was so hard for us to say good bye but how could we ask her to carry on just for us it was her life her decision. It would have been selfish of me to ask more of her. As it was we feel her death was a beautiful experience and so peaceful. I feel there should always be as much care given in death as there is in life. It is an important stage to go through for everyone. Many will not agree with me either.
    I always had a soft spot for Aunt Jean. So was always so good to me. I am so sorry for everything she has to go through in the end. I will always cherish my memories of her and Uncle Merlin!

    • Hi Shelley,

      No matter how prepared you think you are for the inevitable, you really are never ready when the time comes. I think we should be allowed to go out on our own terms – like you mom. Not a popular view held by many. But I think we end up being selfish in the end, by delaying the inevitable.

      The Wolfe clan was pretty tight – at least in our parent’s generation. Mom thought the world of her nieces and nephews.

      Thanks for your kind words.


  3. Hi Kent,

    I went to visit your Mom a few times in the nursing home. It would take her a few minutes to remember who I was but when she did, then we would start reminiscing. I always enjoyed spending time with your Mom. The last time I saw her she gave me a picture of you, me and Kim sitting on the step at your house. She was a great lady!

    • Hi Mary,

      Mom often mentioned you. She would say, “did you know that Mary Herron works here? She stops to visit me sometimes.”

      It was very kind of you to visit her. The days are long and I never felt like I did enough. I visited her every week for 23 years – but it still felt like I cheated her somehow.

      That picture must have been back when I had a brushcut lol. That was a LONG time ago.


  4. Hi Kent. It is indeed difficult to see our parents fade away. My Dad was 80 and due to health issues, Mom could no longer look after him. He was actually looking forward to the nursing home. He was very gregarious and loved to visit people but he hated it. He lasted 3 weeks. We took him for a walk in his wheel chair on a Friday night. The next night he was gone from a massive heart attack. He was finally at peace.
    My Mom on the other hand lived in her home up until she was 94. Mind you, I was at her house, nearly every day at the end. She went into the hospital for an electrolyte imbalance and suffered a stroke, which paralyzed her entire right side and left her with the inability to swallow. She was also unaware that she would never be able to go home again. She was quite angry with me that I hadn’t come to take her home. I had the difficult decision to make whether to have her taken her to London for a feeding tube or to let her go. She had often expressed the wish to die. In the end that is what I decided but I still feel guilty for that. She was a difficult woman as my brothers could attest to, but it was still a hard decision.
    I guess in my long rambling I want my kids to know that there are no wrong decisions. Let me go when it is my time but hopefully keep good memories.

    • Hi Erna,

      Your words encapsulate much of my experience as well. Those are hard decisions. They often don’t understand at that point and only want to be home where they feel safe and comforted. Even though I visited mom every week for years, I never felt I did enough. More importantly, I don’t think I ever understood the depth of her loneliness. For her and many others, the minutes are like hours waiting and hoping someone will stop in for a visit to break up the monotony.

      You were clearly a good daughter. We learn a lot through our experiences. I want my kids to hit the “easy button” when the time has come.

      Take solace in the fact that you did all you could for your parents, given what you knew at the time.


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