I remember one specific health crisis that hit our family unexpectedly. I had just hung up the phone with Mom, she wanted me to know she was headed to urgent care because she thought she was having a gall bladder attack and needed an antibiotic. That’s the role of the oldest daughter; you get to ‘know’ things about your aging parents every so often that you leave you thinking, should I worry about that?
I don’t often worry too much but a few hours later I had gotten a call from my step-dad informing me Mom was headed into surgery. Turns out the gall bladder attack was a tumor, and to the radiologist it looked like kidney cancer. That moment of panic settled in and I couldn’t put my thoughts together in one cohesive sentence, all I could say is ‘I’m on my way.’
The best advice someone gave me was breathe, just breathe. I did that in between spiraling thoughts of confusion, is this really happening? I need someone to pick the kids up. I need to call my siblings. Did anyone remind the doctors that she has an extremely low tolerance for anesthesia? What does this mean? How do they know? I went into complete control mode.
I guess that’s another characteristic of being the oldest child and daughter – I felt the overwhelming need to take over the situation. I was after all my mother’s trustee, although I later found out not quite on paper just in conversations we had. While my stepdad is excellent at being her support, he was terrible at remembering the details and not very organized and he never answered his cell phone.
I didn’t have time to think about how I was feeling in that moment. They say it’s better to be proactive and plan on these things before a health crisis hits but that’s not always easy. Honestly, I thought that was for people much older. My mother is in her late 60s and this blindsided us.
When I got to the hospital she didn’t have any of her things with her. I had a chance to talk to my stepdad who didn’t know much nor did he know what questions to ask. I liken my list of questions in that moment to one of those scrolls that rolls out onto the floor, they were endless. But when I tried to ask them of the nurse she politely responded, ‘you’re not on her list of people we can share personal information with.’ I was offended. While we talked openly about it, my mother never documented her decision. We’ll have to rectify that later. Right now she needed things.
In a crisis, what are those things people need? As I flipped through her desk drawers and file cabinets in what felt like an intimate invasion of her privacy, I thought in my frustration that we need a central place where all of this information is stored. Medication lists, insurance cards, lists of primary care doctors, previous surgeries, and the fact that she doesn’t react well to anesthesia which I knew but no one else remembered to tell the doctors at the hospital. (It’s why she ended up in the ICU after surgery, they struggled to get her to wake up.)
I had to keep moving lest my mind start wandering to what just happened over the last 24 hours. I remember tidying her kitchen, stripping her bed, throwing in laundry, checking the fridge for food, and pulling together all of her paperwork and belongings into an overnight bag. There were things I knew she needed to make her feel better.
It wasn’t until I picked up a pair of her ugly slip-on furry shoes that we joked about because she wore them as if they were another appendage that it all hit me like a heavy weight. My mother was in the hospital and I didn’t know what would happen. The tears unexpectedly came over those ugly shoes. For the first time I really wasn’t sure what to do next but knew I had to figure it out.
I did what everyone told me to do, I breathed. I let the tears fall for a moment. Then I stood up and headed back to the hospital.
I learned I wasn’t alone in this situation either. Many adult children are thrust into these situations without knowing any of the details. And surprisingly those within your family whether it’s the spouse or another sibling aren’t always so available when it comes to pitching in. What can you do? Download the ‘Family Planning for Aging in Place checklist’ created by Homespire, an Intermountain company that serves the Salt Lake City, Utah area, to guide you and your family through organizing the important information you should know in times of crisis and hopefully before one ever hits. It will become your family record keeper and something I wish I had done before my mother’s diagnosis.
My advice to you, take a deep breath if you’re in a crisis and collect your thoughts on paper. Ask for help and identify your team, professionals like Homespire can help guide you and suggest support as needed to get you through the immediate crisis. You don’t have to do this alone. And for those of you who are better at planning than I was, good for you – proactive planning helps you have what you need in times of crisis so important information is written down and signed by your aging loved one, not locked inside your head where no one but you remembers important details like anesthesia reactions.
We’d love to hear your stories about how you got through a health crisis or are proactive planning, what have you learned? Share On!