Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Counting Minutes of Your Life

Rehab for an elite athlete is a chore and a challenge. Rehab for a 90-year-old woman with a replacement hip is something quite a bit more.

senior-rehabA week ago, my mother tripped over her own feet and fell in her backyard while watering a tomato plant in the dark. Her hip landed on a concrete sidewalk with a thud. X-rays confirmed what she already knew – it was broken.

After scooting herself into her house, using a hammer luckily nearby to open the screen door latch, she managed to call for help. Her original plan was to hoist herself up into a chair and wait until morning so she didn’t disturb anyone in the middle of the night.

Ironically, my mother had talked with me about her precautions to avoid a fall and broken hip. However, at 11 p.m., after attending a memorial service for a friend at her church, she forgot her own advice.

My mother spent an excruciating day in the Emergency Room and later in a hospital room waiting for surgeons to scramble a team to operate and give her a partial hip replacement. The operation early Sunday morning was successful and my mother showed quick signs of progress. By Wednesday morning, she was discharged to a rehab center.

I followed her medical transport to the rehab center and witnessed the check-in process. The staff was attentive and caring. The admission details were handled smoothly. But the room was sterile and, frankly, depressing. I could see the high spirits my mother exhibited when discharged from the hospital sink when she saw the digs where she would spend at least the next three weeks. She didn’t say anything, but her grimace spoke volumes.

The projected heat wave prompted me to ask about temperature control in the double-occupancy room. From the other side of the curtain came a shrill voice that said, “You’re not turning on that air conditioning.” The shrill voice belonged to a small, frail woman whose bed was next to the air conditioner unit, which probably meant that it constantly blew cold air on her. Sensing an irreconcilable conflict, the admissions crew quickly found a single room for my mother. We scurried to move all of her things before anyone changed their mind.

The new room had the same sterile features, but seemed cheerier because of two large windows with a view of a small enclosed courtyard with three birdhouses. There also was a bulletin board to post cards from friends. It wasn’t exactly a morale booster, but it was the best thing available.

The first night, it was difficult to leave my mother alone in that room. She must have felt that her life had fundamentally changed. Her 90-year-old mobility will eventually return, but not completely. With her new hip, she can’t bend over or cross her legs. And she will need a grabber to pull on her socks. For my neat-freak mother, one of her biggest realities is never again being able to stoop down and clean her baseboards every week.

Rehab for her is less about recovering so she can ski or play basketball again. Her rehab is all about preparing to return to her home, so she can resume living independently. Rehab is a daunting and exhaustive physical challenge for anyone, but for an older adult it is also psychologically draining. Rehab for them is a big red flag about the increasing frailty of their body and the shrinking horizons of their life while pushing a walker.

old_woman_with_a_walker2Mobility and independence are a critical part of self-worth and help fuel will power, which is essential to recovery.

An injured skier may face the reality of never being a competitive athlete again, but he or she can still walk. A hip injury can seem like a death sentence for an older adult. In addition to the pain and the confusion, there is a question mark about whether rehab is worth the effort.

For family members and friends, our job is to keep the ultimate goal of returning home in sight, to stay at it regardless of the pace, to remain positive. That requires stoking your own optimism before poking your head through the door to that sterile cubicle where your mother is confined, counting the minutes of her life.

Too bad my mother dislikes dogs. They can cheer up almost anybody any time if you let them.



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