"Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work." - Mother Teresa, Roman Catholic nun and missionary, (1910-1997)
By JULIA ANDERSON
A stroke episode has my mother thinking that her time has come. One morning at the care center she awoke to find that she couldn't swallow. Trying to drink was a torture akin to water-boarding. Choking, sucking liquid down her windpipe, gasping for air. Truly frightening.
"What's happened," she asked the caregivers in a garbled sentence or two.
"There's been a stroke that's affected your ability to swallow and to speak," they told her. Not good.
A black dress went into the bottom of my suitcase when I packed and rushed to be with her. This could be it, I thought.
Even though we had talked on prior visits about no more emergency trips to the hospital, no heroic measures if something happened, she still would need to revisit the issue yet again. What would she want to do in the face of this latest set-back?
At 98, it may seem as though it should be easy for my mother to come to terms with death, to accept that her life is at an end. She'd talked courageously about that many times. But the reason my mother is 98 in the first place is because of her strong will to live and to adjust to the physical circumstances at hand, here and now.
There had been numerous health-related set-backs since that first stroke in her mid-80s. Severe back-pain nearly incapacitated her until they "glued" vertebra together, a broken knee cap took months to heal. A fall in her own kitchen that broke her hip put her in an assisted living care center almost three years ago. There were tooth extractions, changes in medications.
All this has made it difficult for her to walk then to pedal herself about in a wheelchair.
And now, this latest stroke.
No, she didn't want to go to the hospital.
No, she wouldn't fight it. She'd let go. Hospice was called, papers were signed and a care program set up to attempt to feed and keep my mother comfortable as she ended her days.
Time out, please
We read newspaper obituaries all the time about people who have died too young after "battling" cancer or other debilitating disease. But what about dying from old age? Obituaries don't really tell you how hard it is to die of old age, really old age.
As I've walked down the hallways at the care center, I see old people all around me who are making the best of it. Who are trying to regain strength after a fall, struggling to get themselves to the lunch room or the bingo table every day. I see people who are hunched almost double by rheumatoid arthritis or osteoporosis but who are still moving, thinking, breathing...alive.
Sometimes they lie asleep in recliners in their rooms, mouths open, TV blaring. Others slump sideways in wheelchairs as they nap by the front door.
My mother is now confined to her room and must have help dressing, moving from her bed to the toilet and then to her chair by the TV. She's still getting her hair done on Thursdays but there's no more bingo, no more going to the dining room. She has a very hard time forming words that can be understood by others. Her mind is there, the physical equipment is failing.
The good news (or maybe it's bad) is that the symptoms of the stroke have loosened their grip on her throat so that she can manage a few careful swallows without choking. But eating and drinking is exhausting. In the past four months, she's shed 17 pounds. On a 100-pound frame to start with that's not good. We joke that she always liked being skinny.
Hospice caregivers feed her twice a day one spoonful at a time but only give her as much as she wants. And frankly, she's tired of the gloppy food that's pureed to a paste and the gelatinous "drinks" thickened to lower the choke threat.
During my most recent visit, she demanded a hamburger from the McDonald's dollar menu. I ordered it with just cheese and ketchup (plus extra ketchup) and smuggled it into the care center. Cut it into micro-bites, mom ate using a spoon then carefully chewed and swallowed each bite. She smiled when she nearly finished the whole thing without choking. Lobster bisque with its rich, creamy texture from the restaurant two blocks seems to create the same enthusiasm. But she freely admits that she would like to go, to be out of this life.
And that's the tricky part.
Hospice is really there to help you die --- "Committed to improving end of life care and expanding access to hospice care with the goal of profoundly enhancing quality of life for people dying in America and their loved one," as the Hospice Web site says.
Nobody thought my mom would be around this long including my mom. She may be ready to let go but as her Hospice nurse said, "mentally she's ready but her body may not be there, yet. The vital signs are good."
God, this is tough...watching this dying in slow motion with my mother making the best of it.
I really don't know how caregivers do it knowing that most of the people in their charge are not going anywhere. Preventing falls, wiping bottoms, dealing with bedsores, managing ulcerated legs, dementia, wet diapers, constipation, medications, specialized food management all are in a day's work. I've come to care deeply about the people who can do this work with love in their hearts.
And here's to the really old people including my mother who are hanging in there, who face death alone in the dark of night in their care center rooms, who wonder when their time will come. Who say, thank you, to the people working the morning shift who help them pee, dress, brush their teeth. Here's to the old people who smile when their kids show up. Who tell us that we are loved.
After a few days with my mother, she and I were more or less convinced that she can make it to her 99th birthday less than 60 days away. But I won't blame her if she changes her mind.
"The Social Security benefits of women 65 and older average a modest $12,100 per year – but without them, half of women 65 and older would be poor." - National Women's Law Center.
By JULIA ANDERSON
This is the time of year when we start thinking about taxes and mulling over household budgets for the coming 12 months. It's also a good time for people....married or single...to look at their long-term plans for retirement.
If you're a working woman, ask yourself what your retirement will look like in 20 or 30 years? Where will your retirement income come from? If you're near retirement, should you be asking your daughters these questions to help them to consider that life in long and they should plan for it.
As we know women live longer than men but tend to save less for their later years. The fact is that 32 percent of women over 65 are living alone. That percentage increases as we age.
Half of women 75 and older are on their own financially.
Here's what the U.S. Census Bureau tells us:
- The poverty rate among elderly women is much higher than men by nearly double (18 percent vs. 10 percent).
- In 2010, there were 23 million older women (65 and older) versus 17.5 million older men living in the U.S.
- Thirty-two percent of women in the 65 to 74 age group are living alone.
- Nearly half of older women (75 and older) live alone.
- In the 85-to- 94 age group, women outnumber men, 7.58 million to 3.37 million.
- The poverty rate among elderly women, 65 and older, rose to 18.4 percent from 2010 to 2012.
- The median income of older persons in 2010 was $25,704 for males and $15,072 for females.
- Social Security constituted 90 percent of the income received by 35 percent of beneficiaries in 2009 (22 percent of married couples and 43 percent of non-married beneficiaries).
So how do we plan?
Try out these questions on yourself or your daughters.
No. 1 - Am I taking advantage of all long-term investment opportunities....either a 401(k) through my employer or by setting up a Roth Individual Retirement Account of my own? These two options are by far the best ways to save for the long-term because they grow tax deferred or in the case of a Roth....tax-free over many years. If you're over 50, chuck as much as you can into these plans. Make sure you know what the management fees are per year. And don't be afraid of stocks because that's where you're going to earn the most retirement money.
No. 2 - Am I generally taking an interest in investing and in managing my money? It's fun and you don't have to be rich to do it. But with all the short-term gloom and doom and the technical TV blather, it's easy to be discouraged or intimidated.
Keep in mind that the American S&P 500 Stock Index has increased in value 2 percent a year for the past 60 years... not a bad track record. Quarterly dividend payouts from many of these companies boosts that annual earnings rate.
Start small and stick with it. Find a company that you know and like, then buy a few shares of it. There are plenty of brokerage firms to help get you started or go online and do it yourself. Doing it yourself is the most fun and the least expensive.
No. 3 - Are you being paid what you're worth? Make sure if you are working outside the home that you're being paid what your worth. Women working full-time year round in equivalent jobs are still earning some where between 77 cents and 90 cents for every $1 men earn, reports the U.S. Census Bureau. (See table from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, click here.) Could this be our own fault?
Research shows that women tend not to negotiate raises as effectively as men and stay too long in lower-paying "safe" jobs. We also tend to be too conservative with our investing ----hugging money market funds instead of stocks.
That means singles (as well as couples) must be involved in long-term financial planning. Women must be active in saving and investing. If you're single it's even more important...dive in and learn about investing.
The fact is that women outlive men. In our old age we may spend many years financially on our own. Don't just say, "I'll keep on working or I'll never be able to retire." That's a cop-out. Frankly, you can't bag groceries when you're 90....and many of us are going to live until we're 90.
According to the last census, there were 288,981 women age 95 to 99 alive in the U.S., along with another 44,202 who were age 100 or more. We have a long way to go.
I meet women all the time who face job and money transitions and who want to do them right. It’s about building confidence and taking charge of the future. This is your money. No one cares more than you do!
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