The Candid Caregiver and Laura Mansfield met through our daily meander out in the Twitterverse. I was intrigued by the handle @geezerstories, thinking that this must be a couple of older gentlemen poking a little fun at themselves and their generation.
By the time I found out this Twitter handle belongs to Laura, a caregiver who tweets about caregiving issues, I was already hooked. Laura and I messaged on Twitter and she sent me her book “Geezer Stories: The Care and Feeding of Old People.” Laura’s book beautifully combines the whimsy of her blog with a more sobering view of her journey through caregiving.
Laura and I had the following conversation recently about her book, blog and caregiving experiences:
The Candid Caregiver: I’ll start right off, Laura, with the title of “Geezer Stories: The Care and Feeding of Old People.” As a forceful proponent of elder dignity, I was at first a little put off by the irreverent title though I eventually came down on the side of your book title’s irreverent brilliance. What has the general reaction from caregivers been toward this catchy title?
Laura Mansfield: Carol, that’s a very insightful question. DooDaddy (Laura’s dad) will be the first to say he’s actually more of a “codger” than a “geezer” — but he has embraced the term, which seemed to resonate with my Facebook community who were the first to read my #geezerupdates, many of whom shared their own “geezer stories” with me.
I certainly never meant it to be derogatory in any way. One of my friends has taken to calling her mother “Geezer Lite,” because she’s in such good health and seems so much younger than her age. And the term has spawned a series of hashtags: #geezerlove, #geezerlife, #geezerwisdom, etc.
I read something recently about the importance of humor in the grieving process and I absolutely concur. We have to laugh to keep from crying, or sometimes we laugh while we’re crying. It’s part of the process. My father, aka DooDaddy, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer three months ago — the same exact cancer as my mother — and was given six months to live.
My son was the one who said, “Well, let’s make it the best six months ever, ” and we all laughed, relieved that we could release our fear and sadness in a positive way, if only for a moment. As DooDaddy’s symptoms worsen, he looks at me with Big Eyes and says: “I guess this is just part of it, isn’t it?” And we shrug our shoulders and smile and get on with it.
When our eyes well up with unshed tears, we share an unspoken understanding of what lies ahead, what we saw with my mother, aka Gmamma, at the end. It wasn’t pretty. But she went out on her own terms, with dignity. And that’s the end goal for my father. Humor helps us face our fears about what lies ahead — not death, per se, but the getting there.
TCC: According to Geezer Stories, your parents were both unprepared if not clueless about raising children. While we’re not talking meanness or physical abuse, they clearly couldn’t give you and your siblings the emotional support that most children need to thrive. Yet, in the end, you overcame your unconventional childhood to become far closer to the woman who was your older mother than you were to your younger mother during your childhood. Do I have that right and could you expand on that theme for us?
LM: You are spot on, Carol. My parents had no idea what they were doing. My father saw his role, as did many of his generation, as being the provider for his family. That’s how he loved us. The rest was left up to my mother, who was emotionally ill-equipped to deal with raising three children, virtually by herself.
Dad will say now that he didn’t know how to be a father because he didn’t have one of his own and he feels terribly guilty about that. I don’t think my mother ever felt guilty about her failings as a parent. Her way of coping with unpleasantness was to ignore it. Self-awareness was not something she sought.
In fact, I think she thought introspection was selfish and weak. She was stoic, strong and uncomplaining. I know she loved us, even though she was never effusive or demonstrative. Even toward the end, I remember hugging her until she said, quietly but firmly: “You can let go now.”
And it only hurt my feelings a little then because I had finally accepted her for exactly who she was. I had quit projecting my unmet needs and longing for love onto her. That was freedom for me.
I still weep for my inner child who felt "less than" and unworthy of love, and I try to do some work with visualization and hugging that little motherless waif. And the acceptance I never felt from my mother I have received tenfold from my fellow Taffy Generation caregivers, many of whom were also raised on conditional love and judgement. Apparently, I wasn’t alone.
TCC: You were anything but alone in that, Laura. I hear from enough caregivers to know that for a fact. Your compassion and admiration for your mother as she was given a terminal diagnosis and went through excruciating pain before her death, some due to her refusal to make changes, showed how you had become the mother to your mother that you never had for yourself. For you, caregiving really did feel like role reversal. Did you find that healing?
LM: It was the ultimate catharsis to love this difficult, stubborn woman who had become very childish in her behavior at the end. And I saw myself as a child in her. When I was a little girl, I was stubborn and withdrawn and self-reliant. Shut off because I was afraid of being vulnerable. I’m just now realizing this as I consider your question, not only was I absolutely accepting my mother and forgiving her, I was acting as “mother” to myself, manifested as the child my mother had become. It was healing on so many levels.
TCC: Your “Rules for the Care and Feeding of Old People” starts out with, “Forget the past. Let it go,” listing number two as, “Forgive your parents.” You must have flinched now and then, though. We’re human. Was it sometimes hard to let go and forgive?
LM: Yes, it was hard. And I hope and pray my son can view me with the same compassion and acceptance when I’m a geezer. I know so many people who carry around a lifetime of old grievances and hurts. Their identities are defined by the emotional pain they experienced as children or in bad marriages or at toxic workplaces, and I see the toll it takes on them and how it robs them of their personal power and joy.
Forgiving my parents and letting go of the past was something I had to do for myself as well as for them in order to be happy. And I am so grateful I was able to do it while they were both still alive, so I don’t have regrets of things unsaid and undone that can never be said and done. And the decision to forgive my parents has spilled over into so many other areas of my life. I’m able to let more things go and that release is such a blessing.
TCC: We are all changed by our caregiving experiences but I don’t know that I’ve ever read a story that illustrates so much change as Geezer Stories. Could you tell us how you would sum up these changes in the person you have become?
LM: Wow, I hadn’t thought about it that way. I still have a lot of work to do and struggle daily with my perfectionist tendencies and my need to achieve. I still have feelings of not being good enough. But I can see it now. I’m mindful of my emotional triggers. I hope my caregiving experience has made me kinder and more accepting of others. I hope I am more accepting of myself.
...I believe there are no mistakes in life, only lessons. And the lesson of my childhood is that love comes in all shapes and sizes and we have to open our hearts and minds to receive it. I cherish my parents and the love and the pain that shaped my character and made me who I am today. I am forever grateful for the privilege of caring for them in the twilight of their lives.
No regrets. And when the caregiving is over, love remains.