Mommy, What Is It Like To Be Old?
By Sherry Bushnell
Our quiet-as-a-butterfly daughter Sheela asked me one day, “Mommy, what is it like to be old like you?”
Now, as mother for the 12th time recently, admittedly, I was feeling a little tired….but old??
Sheela is blind, and so from her perspective only the voice of a person really changes. She cannot see wrinkles, gray hair, a sore back, shaky hands or age spots. So I attempted to describe what an older person feels like, or what it is like to be old.
“In my heart, I still see myself as the same little girl I once was in the mirror. Only now I have had many more things in life happen, I know more people, and I understand more about the world around me. Change is not as easy. I am rooted in my habits, and my faith in God is stronger.”
Sheela was quiet for a minute and then she responded… “Will I be stuck in my habits too?” (We’d just been working on not picking her eyes and biting her nails.)
Hmmm...I thought to myself, what is she getting at?”
“I suppose that is a good reason to be careful to make good choices and train ourselves in proper health habits.”
“Yes”, she pondered, “I need to be more careful to remember what it might be like to be old.”
Well, anyway, it set me thinking about what it will be like to have older special needs “children.”
When I am in my 80’s, Sheela will be in her 60’s. She will have gone through girlhood, womanhood and then “Elderly Aunthood.”
As the mother of 3 daughters with mild to moderate mental needs, I have confidence that none of them will be married. What kind of meaningful single existence shall I prepare them for?
Liza is 19, Sheela is 15 and Lynny is 12. All around them girls are talking of courtship with a young man, getting married, having babies or getting a good paying job until they are married, and driving.
My girls are full of questions wondering where they will fit in society when they are old.
I have taken great care to assure them they will always have a home with us, even when their brothers and sisters all marry or fashion their own spot in the world.
Yet somehow, I want my disabled girls to have a purpose in life, to feel useful and content.
First, I believe that my girls, in order to be content, need to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They need to be able to take their worries and concerns to Him. Their faith is great and child-like. It is a joy right now to hear them pray. I tell my other children, you can rest assured, that after you move from our home, you will have an army of prayer warriors, holding you up before the throne each day. Somehow, this great purpose is exciting and imparts a sense of real responsibility in my girls.
Aunthood is a very real position in a family. I know that the training I give my disabled girls today will be a real plus for my non-disabled daughters as they are having babies and needing someone to do laundry, the dishes or entertain preschoolers.
So in essence, the work we do right now is preparing them to be a blessing in whose ever’s home they are living in.
To help them do a good job when they are fulfilling their role as Auntie, we are working on their attitudes about trying new skills and learning to look for ways to tidy up the house. Because understanding is limited, progress can be slow. It is a good thing we are starting now!
There are many great learning opportunities in communities for older mildly mentally disabled adults. Daycare centers, restaurants, landscaping / plant nurseries, farms, bakeries, and many other jobs are perfectly suited for men and women who don’t mind or even thrive on tasks that are done over and over.
How can we encourage our special needs children to work hard and not give up?
For our family, we are still in the trying to succeed stages. Our biggest successes have come by finding the balance between the right amount of responsibility (jobs that are not too big) and positive correction when they goof (not so easy!).
Liza, our 19 year old, came to live with us a little over a year ago. Her progress has been outstanding. She was musing about how different life is here than in the group home where she was living before here. She asked me.. “When I first came, was I shy?”
“Shy” was not an adjective I would use, believe me! However, Liza was not able to do much to help out, besides read stories to the little ones. It was not because she wasn’t physically able, it was because she did not have confidence in her ability to succeed. She was very much afraid of failure.
Little by little, we were able to get her to bathe and clean herself successfully. She learned how to manage her monthly periods discreetly. Small jobs over the year that she has done well have created great confidence in her. What a difference today. Learning to accept correction and try again (without tears) has made her a willing worker and a pleasure to be around.
The secret to successful training for when our children grow older is repetition. Giving our children a chance to succeed now will keep their attitude sweet later in life.
As NATHHAN families grow older and special needs children get bigger and bigger, some folks have had to readjust their goals and vision for their family.
Some families have had no choice but to place their very large adult children in a nursing or community home, because of their inability to lift or care 24 hours a day to a severely disabled child.
Many years ago, we had a hard time envisioning placing one of our children out of the home...yet reality has hit hard and we have seen where outside placement for some families is a must for safety and health.
For now, taking each day one step at a time and enjoying our children is enough to keep us content. As we adjust to our children’s health needs (and their personalities) as they grow older, they have to adjust to mine, too.
Most of all, we need to follow Christ’s recipe in the Bible for growing old gracefully, as an example for our children.