Steps and Missteps

I broke my foot in January, just days before the Polar Vortex roared into Chicago. Fortunately, my children were home that day and heard my cry for help. They appeared at the top of the staircase very confused and slightly frightened and found me in a heap at the bottom of the steps, clutching my throbbing foot. Immediately all three ran down and helped me shimmy up and back inside our home. In their capable pre-teen and teenaged embrace, I was aware of how awkward it was that the tables were turned and my children were helping me when I'd fallen. 

My kids instructed me to prop up my foot, they brought an ice pack and then carefully wrapped my foot in an Ace Bandage. When my husband returned from work, he brought me to the ER, and there I found out that the foot was indeed broken and I'd need to stay off of it for many weeks and maybe months. 

When I awoke the next day to the bitter cold, I secretly rejoiced about the coincidentally fabulous timing of my foot break and the Polar Vortex. As the temperatures dropped below negative teens, my family would be home to help me for a few days. This was a win-win. I felt lucky to bask in their warm and fuzzy embrace, and they were happy to be home for an unexpected time off from school and work. For a few days I was a novelty and everyone seemed happy to help bring me food or drink and hang out and chat. My people were even willing to walk the puppy that I'd brought home a few months earlier announcing that he was my puppy and I'd happily (always) be the designated walker. 

Two days of Arctic temperatures rocked Chicago, and as soon as the temperature reached single digits -- which was considered a thawing -- everyone returned to their regular routines. Snuggling together under cozy comforters and having my every need met became a distant memory. I'd enjoyed the status as Queen Mother in Need, but now I was left alone. Alone with the puppy that needed walking and alone with the broken foot that I suddenly realized was actually quite painful. I panicked that first morning as I sat in bed, cold and coffee-less, wondering how suddenly, life seemed to be proceeding without me, and how I was going to do my job, my chores, all I did for everyone else, and live my life without my helpers. 

Throughout this time, I felt physically awful and was full of self-pity. Poor me. Poor me, who waits all day for my helpers to return home in the afternoon. Poor me who couldn't figure out how to get the milk to the coffee while walking on crutches. Poor me who couldn't even go out for fresh air as the ground was covered in thick ice and fresh snow for weeks on end. This nasty Polar Vortex seemed to be moving in long-term, and it didn't care one bit about me and my broken foot. 

As the days wore on and my personal cloud of misery lingered overhead, I somehow managed to gain perspective. I reminded myself that I was better off than many and certainly better off than most patients I'd seen in the doctor's office on my last visit. I had only a broken foot and it would soon heal, and I would then get back to life as usual. I began physical therapy, began to bear weight on my foot and as I hoped, the weight of my injury seemed to diminish. The world outside my home, although still frozen, started to energize me, and encouraged me to embrace my recovery. With this new energy, I shifted focus away from my own needs and toward my family and my clients and other responsibilities of my work life.

As my awareness returned, so too did the realization of my luck and of the lack of luck an older adult can experience when they have a similar break or a bruising fall.

I had the strength and the desire to return to life as usual, as many older adults have. However I am a relatively young woman and as such, I was expected to recover, and to return to life as usual. I was expected to return to my independent lifestyle, and encouraged by everyone to do so.

Expectations often differ for those whom we consider "old."

Recovery, I realized, not the accident itself, is where tensions surface and arguments occur between older adults and their loved ones. Recovery is the time when families panic. The adult child who is uncomfortable or maybe feeling guilty that they can't be closer in, may start to get anxious about mom or dad living alone, living across the country or an ocean away. And this is understandable. Who wouldn't want to try to prevent their loved one from falling into a more serious or life threatening situation?

But we must not lower our expectations of someone's return to normal life just because an older person has fallen. They may fall, but when they do, our job is to offer them a hand up, and that hand should not be attached to conditions or control. We need to suspend our judgement and be as supportive as needed. We need to listen and hear what our loved ones are telling us.

Only after we have listened should we gently ask questions. We may remind ourselves that our parents are still the ones who have made countless decisions throughout their lives; many of those were good and sustaining, and helped us and them achieve important life goals.

In old age, decisions are made based on a sage well of experience, seeing family and friends make similar choices and decisions before us. When we can take a step back and hold our tongue, our loved ones will either choose more help or choose to fall. If they fall again, as painful as it may be for us to watch, our job is to continue to love and support and bring coffee when needed. And then listen some more, and have another respectful conversation. And then another.