Many people remember where they were on September 11, 2001 when Al Qaeda hijackers flew into the World Trade Center collapsing the Twin Towers or when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But I will remember Friday, July 15, because that was the day that my 82-year-old mom fell and was rushed to the ER.
That evening I hardly slept. At 3AM, I was awakened by a disturbing dream, so jarring that it tapped into my worst fears, leaving me wide awake.
In my dream, I had witnessed my mom falling. As I reached out to grab her, she kept falling past me. My mom was laughing uproariously, and then I looked down to see roller skates strapped to her feet (never seen her skate). As my mom tried to stand up on the steps, she lost her balance, and I watched helplessly as Mom fell down an endless stairwell.
Then, I awoke shaken to the core, debating with myself: Should I share this dream with my parents before my mom’s early exercise class? I didn’t share my nightmare or even remind Mom to be careful, because I didn’t want to unnecessarily upset them.
Later that morning, I received Dad’s alarming phone call: ‘I don’t want to bother you, but—before he could say ‘Mom fell,’ I already knew. I braced for the worst—ran around in circles considering everything that might be needed—grabbing Mom’s clothes, to replace the blood stained ones, water bottles, snacks, cash, and zipped out the door—functioning on auto-pilot, until I spoke with my sister and let the tears flow.
My mom had slipped on the floor after her class while hurrying to reach the bathroom. Thank God it wasn’t worse. She broke the fall with her right arm, shoulder, and hand. Surprisingly, there was no available nurse at the community center, so the life guard administered first aid, stopped the bleeding, got my mom into the car, and then somehow my panic-stricken dad drove her to the hospital where I met them in the ER.
After taking multiple X-rays, the radiologist determined that remarkably she had no broken bones except for her fractured finger. While there she received six hypodermic needles (locals) injected into her hand, so that the doctor could stitch up her hand , reposition her finger, splint it and bandage up to her elbow; then she was released.
Badly bruised from head to toe, especially along the right side of her body, my proud mom had to learn to accept help, at least temporarily.
Unfortunately, my mom needed outpatient surgery to reset and put pins in her finger, which left her with a cast on her right arm.
Is your home safe?
When we sent our kids off to college, Rob and I became empty nesters, until two years ago when my parents moved in. They were no longer able to take care of themselves, so we converted our den into their bedroom. When my daughter graduated and returned home, we then became part of the sandwich generation.
We took every precaution around the house to remove or reduce any hazards– leaving my parents’ bedroom light on all day so that they could see where they were walking, removing extraneous bags, boxes, slippery bath rugs, and other trip hazards. But not all obstacles can be anticipated, especially when my parents left the house.
Apparently, our family is not alone. In the recent nationwide survey, “The Sandwich Generation: Rising Financial Burdens for Middle-Aged Americans,” Pew Research Center confirms what we had already suspected that a large number of middle-aged adults are part of the sandwich generation:
“Nearly half (47%) of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older).”
We learned a lot from researching and living this experience that I hope may help other sandwich generation families. According to the CDC, every day 2.5 million older people are treated in the emergency rooms for fall injuries.
Today daughters and sons have to advocate for their parents, too—especially when they are elderly. Although I wasn’t present at the orthopedist’s initial visit, I wrote down questions for my parents to ask and spoke with the nurse regarding all pre-op considerations. Sometimes your parents are too overwhelmed by the whole ordeal to even know the right questions to ask.
The day of my mom’s surgery, I drove my parents and sister to the outpatient surgery center—for moral support and to speak directly with the surgeon afterward. Everything went well, deep breath, and I got to speak directly with the surgeon regarding post-op care. Third hand information from anxious parents is not always that reliable.
What to expect
What people may not realize is that injuries can make it difficult for the person to do daily activities, get around, and to be left unattended. When I called my mom’s GP to get leg strengthening and range of motion exercises for my mom to do at home, he set up Home Care, covered by her insurance. Two days later a physical therapist, affiliated with my mom’s doctor, came and evaluated her.
The unknown can be scary, but the therapist quickly put her at ease. He got to know her and listened to her concerns before he asked her to do anything. We learned so much in the hour that he spent with us. He spoke about her lack of confidence and frustration caused by her lack of independence, something that we hadn’t even considered.
For the therapist, not her family, she was willing to try everything that he requested of her—including climb the stairs which she could easily do– to everyone’s surprise. But at the top of the stairs the railing stops prematurely, so my mom had to lean against the wall to propel herself up the last two steps.
Upstairs we learned about bathroom safety. As my mom approached the steps, she froze, but the therapist patiently calmed my mom down and taught her how to climb down backwards using a side step, something we never considered. Every time the physical and occupational therapist come they make sure that my mom climbs the steps, as part of her therapy and to regain some independence.
Purchasing the Cadillac over the Chevy
The next hurdle was to give my mom a shower, the first since her fall. Because we don’t have a shower grab bar, the standard shower chair would require her to step over the tub wall to get in the chair with only the use of one arm.
I shopped around and found the best price for the shower chair ($40-50) at a local medical supply store—but didn’t realize what I really needed until the salesman walked me through the entire process.
He explained that if I purchased the shower bench, which has four adjustable legs, with two legs that sit outside of the tub/shower, then my mom could simply sit first, swing one leg at a time over the tub wall and then scoot over. I chose the Caddy over the Chevy. By far that was the safest option, worth every penny.
My advice: Make sure that you work with a knowledgeable salesperson before making any medical purchases.
When the occupational therapist came after the shower bench was purchased, she adjusted it to the right height and we did a dry run without actually taking the shower.Thoroughly familiar with all its features, I sold my mom on the Caddy just like the dealership sold my daughter on her new car over the preowned.
That weekend I was able to give my mother her first shower in more than a week. Despite my trepidation, I was able to make it a fun, positive experience. Afterward, my daughter styled her hair as a salon does.
This week she said, “I’m ready for my spa!”
Every day we’ll face new challenges, but if we can keep my mom as independent as possible as she moves through her day, then she will regain her confidence, maintain her positive outlook, continue to push herself to accomplish even more—with a heavy dose of patience. Because, we all need to remember that healing can be a slow day by day process for the elderly.