In the Deep End

My older sister, Karen, is a registered nurse who started her career in pediatric oncology. I remember her telling me that at parties nobody wanted to talk to her about her work. People would wrinkle their brow, wave their hand as if to stop her from speaking and say something like, “That is so sad!” as they walked away to find someone with a cheerier vocation to discuss. All these years later, I feel her pain.

When I tell people what I do, I typically get two responses. The first is usually, “That is such a great business to be getting into because the Baby Boomers are getting old,” and the second – which comes in quick succession – is, “That must be so depressing!”

I was at dinner the other night with some friends I have known for a long time, but whom I hadn’t seen in years. During the course of catching up, they asked about Peters & Love. Their reaction was textbook. They told me what a great idea the business is and then swiftly moved into a lament about how awful it is to think about losing their own parents. I feel their pain, too. Someone brought up the movie Amour, which none of us had seen. (The movie – about an elderly couple coping with strokes and dementia – is on my list.) Almost as swiftly as it was brought up, the idea of actually watching it was dismissed. As one person at the table put it, “That is just too awful and depressing to see. Why would I want to do that to myself?”

A couple weeks later, I was at a party with a bunch of old friends. One of them approached me for some advice about his in-laws. It seems that the time has come for them to move out of the house they have lived in for the past 40 years because it’s no longer safe for them to live independently. I began to explain how certain state regulations relate to specific diagnoses, which I thought he would find helpful and relevant – and it may have been, but I could see that the more I spoke, the more tense and irritated he became. I felt his pain. (Whenever I have to deal with something that frustrates or scares me, I get really tense and irritable, too; just ask anyone who has ever lived with me or tried to teach me something about computers.) I backed off and he eventually found a group of people to have a lighter conversation with, which wasn’t too difficult, considering that it’s hard to get much heavier than discussing loved ones in decline and the sense of powerlessness we all feel in the face of it.

Jill and I often liken the world of senior care to a swimming pool that nobody really wants to swim in. By the time people call us, they are in the deep end – either because they drifted down there or got pushed in. It doesn’t matter if you’re afraid of the water, don’t want to acknowledge the pool, or don’t want to think about swimming in it. You will end up in it, guaranteed.  Swimming lessons, a flotation device, a good friend, and some sunscreen are advised. And that’s how Jill and I help; we get you prepared for diving in, wading in, or even just dangling your feet over the edge.

Perhaps I should just tell people I’m a lifeguard at the community pool.

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