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There is no delicate way to put this.  MY PARENTS ARE DRIVING ME CRAZY!  I am not an adolescent, complaining about unfair curfews, or limited access to the family car, or being grounded for something that was so not my fault.  I am a grown woman, capable of juggling work, kids, pets, shopping, cleaning, cooking, you-name-it, but not, apparently, someone who is able to get her elderly parents to behave rationally. If you have lived long enough to have parents who are old, you know what I am talking about.  Chances are your mother, your father, and maybe even your stepparents have among them eight or ten or twenty staggeringly difficult medical problems, each requiring specialists, procedures, therapies, and more pills than fit into the slots in the pill boxes you bought for them at CVS.  Chances are they are making you nuts.

You love them and you realize that their lives have spiraled down to a place that has become too difficult for them to navigate on their own.  So, you help out, or at least you try to, and with every step you take on their behalf, you descend with them into one of the rings of hell.

Take my situation.  Eight months ago, in addition to every other medical problem she already had going on, my mother suffered a stroke.  She’s improved some but she has speech and motor problems, her memory is shot, her personality is altered, and she can’t solve a problem more difficult than getting dressed. Thankfully, there are solutions for many of these hardships.  At least, I thought there were.  

I should have seen the writing on the wall when my mother first got out of residential rehab, temporarily moved with my father into my house while continuing her therapies, and promptly refused to allow our beloved family housekeeper to help her in any way.  Her reason?  None given.  My husband and I had to go to work every day, and my dad is almost as infirm as my mother, so still trying rationally to manage my mother’s many obvious needs, we hired the lovely caregiver who attended my mother-in-law during the last six years of her life.  Fired after a week.  Why?  My parents didn’t like it when Stephanie sat around and didn’t do anything.  At this point the urge to leap across the room and throttle my shrunken father and my dazed mother is nearly uncontrollable, since Stephanie did everything they allowed her to do, which was indeed nothing much at all.  

Instead of accepting or allowing help, my father decided it was a good idea for my mother to walk up and downstairs by herself, to abandon her walker when she was on anything resembling solid ground, and at night to use the hallway bathroom unattended even though the neurologist’s discharge instructions were explicit that my mother needed constant, close supervision, including a complicated baby gate we installed to prevent her from wandering around in her confused state.  How did Dad reach his conclusions in the face of unambiguous directions to the exact opposite?  By employing a personal mantra that has made me grind my teeth every time I have heard it over the last half year:  help is bad because the more help you have, the less you will be able to do for yourself.  

This ascetic’s guide to old age would be admirable if it showed even a nodding acquaintance with reality.  The problem with my father’s self-improvement philosophy is the underlying premise:  neither of them can do things for themselves, or more specifically, they can’t do things correctly, safely, or well.  But that hard truth didn’t give them even a second’s pause when they refused point blank to so much as visit nearby assisted living facilities or consider rental apartments in close proximity to where five of their six children live.  

My father was nearly crazed in his shouted insistence that he and Mom were going home.  Home, which is 70 miles from their closest relation; home where they don’t even have a primary care physician and rely on a local walk-in clinic where the prescription for what ails them is to call an ambulance and ship them off to the emergency room; home where the emergency room resides in a wholly inadequate hospital to which no one in their senses or with any choice would go.  This insanity exceeded any I could have imagined, but I lost my stomach for the fight in the face of Dad’s unembarrassed and unyielding position that he knew going home was selfish, and would be hard on him, my mother, and the rest of us, but he intended to die where he had lived.  

When I caved in to his adamancy, I was still clinging to a plan to give my parents the help they desperately needed.  You would think I would have learned my lesson by this point.  

Instead, I helped put plan B into action. First, my siblings and I lined up Meals on Wheels for our parents.  They cancelled.  Why?  The food stunk.  

Next, we signed up visiting nurses to take blood samples every other day while the doctor adjusted Mom’s blood thinners.  Sent away.  Reason? The nurses don’t operate on a fixed schedule and my parents don’t like to be “tied down.”  Where the hell else did they so desperately need to be?  Now my visually impaired father drives the two of them to the doctor’s office three times a week.  Why would anyone let a little macular degeneration stand in the way of independence?  

For step three, we found a home health aide, covered by Medicare for four hours a day, to assist my mother in the shower, attend to her laundry, and fix meals.  Rejected.  Oh, for god’s sake, now what’s the problem? The aide arrived at 9 a.m., too late to satisfy my mother, who likes to get up and get dressed before breakfast, not after. In my mother’s world, no one in her right mind eats breakfast in a bathrobe.

We also decided to accompany my parents to all their medical appointments.  That didn’t last long.  Dad can’t hear and he fakes his way through most conversations, including the one where the hematologist explained that my mother has to limit her vitamin K intake, because vitamin K strengthens the blood’s ability to clot, and it was a blood clot that caused her stroke in the first place. When my father, mother, and sister left that appointment, my father directed my sister to drive straight to CVS.  Why?  Dad heard the doctor say something about vitamin K and he thought they should immediately go get some.  Maybe he was embarrassed when my sister pointed out what he missed, but the upshot is that we are no longer welcome at doctor’s visits.

My siblings and I stayed mobilized.  We had conference calls, set up calendars, created strategies, pooled finances, chose spokespeople, and we accomplished nothing.  Meanwhile, the only plan my father came up with to deal with my parents’ changed reality was to install grab bars in the shower, to prevent my mother from falling.  The hitch here is that Mom still can’t climb stairs, their only ground floor bathroom has a plastic shower stall, and grab bars can’t be screwed into the shower shell without cracking it open.  The visiting social worker told Dad unequivocally that suction grab bars are dangerous because they slip when you grab onto them. That didn’t pose any hindrance for my dad.  He installed the suction bars anyway.  I’m not actually sure if my mother has showered since they moved back in.  I prefer not to ask. I have a hard enough time dealing with the fact that my dad achieved the only goal he set for himself, while his six kids managed to do nothing at all.

A month from now, at age 88, after two heart attacks, triple bypass surgery, suffering from lousy circulation, a progressively deteriorating heart, and with a defibrillator installed in his chest, my father plans to have his hip replaced.  He sees no difficulties in this at all, reminding us that he has already undergone this surgery, and he knows better than we do what it entails.  Of course I am tempted to point out that his first hip surgery was twenty years ago, when my mother was healthy and unimpaired and took care of herself, him, and every aspect of their lives together, but I am past trying to talk, reason, argue, or curse him out of his decisions.  Even though I consider myself a responsible, rational person, I find myself trying to facilitate my father’s demented ideas.  

Okay, Dad.  At your insistence, you’re now the only caregiver in Mom’s life.  What’s the plan while you’re recovering from surgery? Why do I bother to ask?  My father’s idea of a plan is to lay down the law.  They won’t have an aide.  They don’t need the housekeeper more than once every two weeks.  There will be no food deliveries.  The only change they will make is to hire Chris, their neighbor, to chauffeur them around until Dad is cleared to drive.  My father shouldn’t ever drive a motor vehicle again, but that’s a useless conversation to have.  Wait just a minute. Did Dad say he was going to hire Chris, the neighbor who is on full disability because his colostomy prevents him from being more than minutes from his house?  This is Dad’s plan?   To be honest, there is no way to pretend that my father’s plan actually surprises me.  I had no possible reason to expect a better answer.  When I telephone a second time to ask my father to keep an open mind about what help they will need until he sees how the surgery goes, he engages in a 45 minute long monologue that wanders around in circles and doesn’t begin to respond to my request.  Then again, I stop listening somewhere around minute three.

I have fallen down a rabbit hole, and I can’t find my way out again.  I used to be a pretty effective person who spotted problems and found solutions.  I used to make plans that yielded results.  In June I quit a job I loved because I couldn’t work and handle the emergency calls that I was getting from my father with frightening frequency.  Now I hang around and wait for the frantic calls to come.  I cook and buy foods for my parents, and try to show up regularly to throw out what they have forgotten to eat and that sits spoiled in their refrigerator.  Sometimes they tell me not to drive out, but can’t explain why, so I no longer tell them my schedule and I just appear at their doorstep, bags in hand.  I keep my mouth shut when I should be talking sense to my parents, yet find myself obsessively reciting my tale of woes to anyone who asks how I am.  

A few months ago, a friend whose parents put her through these same paces gave me some advice, “These are not your parents; they are two old people you are obligated to take care of.”  At the time, I thought she meant that I should leave behind any old parent-child feelings, and not allow myself to be hurt when they reject my advice as stupid, or yell at me, or turn me away.  And for all of those situations, my friend’s advice is a real blessing.

Lately, I have come to find another meaning in my friend’s words.  I cannot think of these two old, sick people as my parents because, if I did, I would feel obligated to truly help them, and all I ever do is fail. If this bent-over shell of a man and this addled, aged woman are not the parents of my childhood, whom I love beyond words, then I don’t have to drive myself crazy to win my never-ending battles with them. I don’t have to beat myself up for never actually solving their problems. I can just keep showing up, trying to help, and failing; and that will have to be enough, because it is all I seem able to do.

Stacey Brodsky has practiced law, been a stay-at-home mother, and taught middle school English over the course of the 17 years she has lived in Scarsdale with her husband, daughters, and a succession of dogs.

Copyright Stacey Brodsky 2009

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The Greenburgh Nature Center is partnering with the Westchester/Yonkers Model Railroad Club to present a special, nine-day holiday season show entitled “Trains – Your Ticket to the Great Outdoors.” The exhibit will open on Saturday, December 12th, and run through Sunday, December 20th. Weekday hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (except Fridays, when the Nature Center is closed), and weekend hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Underwriting support for this special event has been provided by WFAS, Coldwell Banker, Ambac, Whole Foods Market and Westchester County Parks.

Designed for train lovers of all ages, the show will feature a special 12- by 18-foot display of HO gauge model trains traveling through countryside scenes of natural beauty, modeled on the terrain of upstate New York and New England. HO model railroad scale is 1/87th of the actual size, so a one-foot model railroad car would be 87 feet long in actual size.

 



The display includes special topographic features such as a mountain with a train tunnel and a mining cave tunnel. Other features include a ravine with a train trestle crossing over it, a stream with a train trestle and wooden bridge, a model village, road crossings, and a model replica of the Greenburgh Nature Center. Members of the railroad club will be on hand to talk about the trains and provide opportunities for visitors to examine some of the different kinds of train engines up-close.

The show is being coordinated by Dr. Paul Greenburg of the WYMRC. Dr. Greenburg has designed and constructed some of the models and has been active as a model railroader for more than 50 years. He is a long-time resident of Greenburgh and has traveled by train throughout many parts of the world.

Admission fees for this special train show are $9 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and $7 for children, ages 2-12 (children under two are free). For GNC members, the fee is $1. The admission fee includes admission to all of the Nature Center’s exhibits, including the live animal museum. All proceeds from the train show will help support the educational programs of the Nature Center and the WYMRC.

For further information, call (914) 723-3470 or visit the website www.greenburghnaturecenter.org.

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Lately, I have been collecting stories of those horrible, terrifying, recurring school stress dreams.  In mine, I am about to fail art history because my timing stinks.  I know the art work cold, but when the slides I am supposed to identify are projected on the screen I am looking down and I keep missing them. On the day of my husband’s finals, he discovers that he is taking five courses, not four.  My 87-year old father still dreams that he sold his textbooks to buy prom tickets.  My sister cannot find the building in which her finals are being given.  As she is opening up her bluebook to answer her exam questions, my daughter is told that she has to give her responses in sign language.  My seven-year old niece dreams that she has poured paint on the head of another first grader because the girl is in a higher reading group.

These dreams would be funny if they weren’t so damn scary. The link between education and stress is indelibly etched into our brains from a very early age.  

I have been thinking about this because it is college application season.  I can’t thank heaven enough that my youngest is safely ensconced as a college freshman and I do not have to go through this process -- even secondhand -- ever again.

Anyone who has lived with high school juniors and seniors knows that it is a year and a half of hell. High school, at a school like ours, is probably the toughest educational experience most of these kids will face.  It’s an academic funnel, where, whether it is true or not, it feels like everybody is uniformly poured into a big wide mouth and is expected to survive being squeezed out the other end.  

I have no horse in this race anymore, so I will risk being labeled a helicopter parent, an hysteric, or a psycho-mom, when I say there is something wrong with what kids are forced to endure. When else in their lives will these kids feel constant and unremitting pressure to be perfect in every possible arena: academics, sports, extra curriculars, volunteer service, standardized test results, and, at the advanced age of 17 or 18, be able to write a compelling and unique personal essay for the common application form?  Unlike our high school students, most of us stumble around as mere flawed and fallible human beings who aren’t under the gun to ace every subject area, and couldn’t be good at everything if we tried.  Either we have trouble calculating a 15% tip, or have never been able to build a Lego set without inviting over an engineer from the neighborhood, or couldn’t so much as say thank you in another language without a simultaneous translator.  Why has it gotten so impossibly hard to be a kid who wants to go to college?

I remember with great relief the last day I ever took a science course, which was in tenth grade.  These days it’s hard not to have a heart attack if your kid decides that junior year physics is the last straw and she has no intention of taking AT or AP science of any kind as a senior. OMG!  Is she putting herself at a disadvantage?

When a young man I know was a high school senior, he knew his GPA and the GPA of anyone whom he considered a competitor to the third decimal point.  He could rattle off the standardized test scores of dozens of his classmates, their extracurricular activities, as well as the family tragedies about which they could write meaningful college application essays.  His parents were in a complete bind.  When they told him that they were confident that he had an excellent chance of getting into the college of his choice, he accused them of blind optimism; when they commiserated about his anxieties, he freaked out because they didn’t believe in him.

It’s no wonder normal people start acting way out of character.  Parents can become uneasy revealing the names of the schools their son or daughter is visiting, as if afraid to remind other families of a great school out there that those other folks maybe otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. Every year there are kids who feel unable to tell anyone where they have applied, and others who claim they did not apply early decision until December 15 or so when they have gotten into their school of choice, or not, and then they may or may not share their hurt with their friends. I get it.  The process of acceptance, deferral, rejection, and wait list is freighted with judgments and competition.  

As a parent, you try not to escalate the pressure and even hope to ease it, as if that were possible.  The high school deans are only stating the obvious when they counsel students that there are many schools in the universe at which they could be happy and successful.  So you go through the courtship process with your student, visiting campuses, sitting through endless and virtually identical information sessions that you could recite word for word in your sleep, and for reasons that may be too elusive to articulate, your child makes choices about where he or she wants to spend the next four years (or five or six, but that’s another story). Once they figure out those choices, you hope that they haven’t fallen too head over heels in love with one prospect over all others, because their intended might turn down their proposal.  And then your 18 year old will have to deal with disappointment, followed, you hope, by a college experience somewhere else that fulfills their dreams.

After going through this cycle with three very different teenagers, I have gleaned one insight that I wish I could inject into the brains of this year’s crop of seniors; yet I know that some knowledge cannot be gained except through personal experience.  Nonetheless, here’s my shred of wisdom.  Happiness is between your ears.  If you can approach your college life with a feeling of optimism and excitement, chances are very high that you will have a great time, whether or not you are attending your first choice school.  It matters much less whether your roommate is a jerk, or your freshman advisor is intimidating, or the food is vile, than whether you are able to transcend the selection process and feel that you have also chosen where you end up.  

And rejoice in the fact that you will never have to be perfect again.  Hate science but have to endure a science requirement?  That’s why God created pass/fail, Rocks for Jocks, and other ways to be as human and fallible as the rest of us.

Stacey Brodsky has practiced law, been a stay-at-home mother, and taught middle school English over the course of the 17 years she has lived in Scarsdale with her husband, daughters, and a succession of dogs.

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