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Death came to me when I was in 7th grade. People known to me had
died before then but David was the first that had any emotional
impact on me. He had been a classmate through elementary school
and although we had never been close friends - we fought at times - his
death haunts me still. It probably haunts me because of my age at the time
but certainly because I understood/stand that if he could die,
so could/can I.
During my twenty years in rural Alaska, Death was always close. We lived and worked with it daily. Frontiers can be very unforgiving. Commercial fishing has one of the highest mortality rates of any industry in the world and nineteen of my years were spent in the Aleutians and Pribilof Islands of the Bering Sea where fishing is the primary occupation. Many friends and former students have been claimed by the sea.
Fires, alcoholism and small plane accidents also took people from our villages on a regular basis. And because Alaskan communities were so small each citizen participated in some way in each death - volunteer fireman, EMS worker, grave digger. It seemed that no one died a "natural" death - from old age.
Sweat poured down my face the chilly, wind swept day that we buried Bobby's mother. At first the clods made a deadened thud as they fell on her coffin - later the only sound was the labored breathing as we worked the shovels. Gradually friends returned home and soon only Bobby and I were left. We passed the shovel back and forth as we finished filling in her grave. Finally, even I left so that Bobby could complete the task alone with his mother. It was much different at my Father's funeral in 1973 in Kansas City. Our modern society shields the family from the details of death.
I took a leave of absence from my teaching job in Arlington, Texas in May of 1995 to come care for my elderly house bound Mother. This article is part of a series that deals with our shared elder care experience. After all, eldercare implies at least three. Care for the care giver is a vital part of the process.
At this point Mother's care is still easy and my duties are light. She is still mobile - using her walker and attached to her oxygen condenser. She is alert and we carry on long conversations. In this nine month period I have learned a great deal about family history, friends and myself that I never learned, knew or had conveniently forgotten as a child.
My situation is this: I am 50 years old, the agreement with the Arlington Independent School District excludes my "gainful employment" as a condition of the leave, Mother's physical handicaps require my time for household chores and meal preparation BUT in general I could have plenty of "time on my hands".
In fact, there is almost no spare time. I consider the last nine months to be some of the most productive and enjoyable in my life. The key has been the computer, it's modem and the world that is available through their use.
As a teacher in Alaska during the 1970's, I had been an "early adopter" of computer technology and bought an Apple IIe when they first came out. Later in the 1980's there was a brief brush with e-mail through my position on the Alaska State Board of Education. Between 1988 and 1991 while teaching in China and Hong Kong I used the computer in several Bible translation projects using rare Pollard script fonts. When I walked into my English as a Second Language classroom in 1991 I found three new Macintosh computers and twelve limited English, Vietnamese students - no other teaching materials. We had a great time - learning English/Vietnamese and working with the Vietnamese fonts that I installed on the computers.
Within twelve hours of moving back into my Mother's house my IBM PS/1 386SX25 was connected via modem to Prodigy. A few weeks later I discovered that the Mid Continent Library system offers software for $1 that will connect a home computer to their circulation data base, turning it into a terminal for library research.
During late June a small notice in the Kansas City Star alerted me to an opportunity to be a Beta tester for Starnet (the online version of the Kansas City Star). By mid July I was confident enough to try connection to One Crossroads Place Bulletin Board where I found a plea for an adult volunteer to help monitor the system in return for an account and an opportunity to learn about BBSing.
With my One Crossroads Place account I had the opportunity to telnet to Texas and establish my TENET (Texas Education Network) account which costs $5 per year for Texas educators. My total connection costs to five services for the three summer month was less than $25!
Siblings, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren came and went as they tend to do in summer. Mother's health and weight improved but our beautiful 40 year old suburban house showed its age by calling out for repairs under the increased traffic after such a long period of inactivity.
New routines were developed to accommodate two adults living in the house. Areas of responsibility and territory were delineated. New roles were assumed. I seldom watch television so Mother reports on the news and the results of football games. She also keeps me informed on the weather, neighborhood activities and what is happening with relatives near and far.
My role assumed most of the cooking duties (although we do the planning together), shopping, laundry, light house cleaning, auto and lawn care. She no longer feels compelled to tell me exactly how these things are to be done (or how she has always done them). At times, it has been difficult for her to let go of these responsibilities.
The computer has also given us another common area to talk about. At first Mother did not take my volunteer work on the computer seriously but since mid summer a number of local television stations have gone "online". Her interest really jumped when Mike & Mindy (11:00 am channel 9) ran a five day series about connection to the World Wide Web.
My use of the computer has moved through several stages. First, just getting the modem into use - connecting to a major online service, and to the local BBSs (Mid Continent, One Crossroads Place, Tenet and Starnet).
The second stage involved research about Web resources for teaching English as a Second Language and resulted in two presentations at regional educational conferences in Texas and the Midwest during October. Also developed was a collection of 127 language software programs covering 35 languages.
The third stage has involved research related to eldercare and has provided me with much useful information about home care for my mother. That research has resulted in my establishing a Web site related to eldercare at http://www.EUBANK-WEB.com/William/Elder/elder.htm.
One of the first publications that I found that was very useful to me was appropriately entitled ANSWERS, The Magazine For Adult Children Of Aging Parents http://www.service.com/answers/ or call 1-800-750-2199 for more information. This magazine been published since 1993 and has a wealth of information for adults trying to care for aging parents. The web site offers an example of a typical table of contents and some samples of articles.
If you suspect that one of your relatives or friends needs help, start by reading: "Does Your Friend Need Help?" by Sharon Emerson, RN at http://www.whidbey.com/ihn/ihn/. There are specific problem areas that can tip you off to the need for intervention. For me, it was finding dishes and silverware put away that was not completely clean during visits home during holidays and school breaks.
Finally, a comprehensive reference for anyone over the age of 40 that is interested in what is coming is THE SECOND 50 YEARS. This free publication is very complete in its coverage of issues related to aging. The web site is found at http://seniors-site.com/. The author, Walter J. Cheney, is a delightful senior originally from the Midwest and may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. More about this book in future issues.
Next month we will look at volunteerism and government programs that are developing to meet the needs on this new frontier.
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