How to handle an aging parent's terminal illness

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My mother-in-law, Lavonne, came to live her last 10 months of life with us. Diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia at the age of 50, she beat the odds in the ’90s and lived almost 10 years more.

We knew the day would come eventually when she’d need to move in with us, so we purchased a home that would accommodate her. I wasn’t sure what it would mean for our family, as we were busy parenting a 6 year old and an 8 year old. But it needed to happen, so I set my mind to it.

As it turned out, Lavonne was determined not to be a burden, so she stayed in her area of the house most of the time. It bothered me that she was isolating herself so much. But, as time went by, I began to wonder if she just didn’t feel good enough to socialize. The children were loud and boisterous so she didn’t play with them much and she rarely ate with us — perhaps because her appetite was waning.

Lavonne had me accompany her to the oncologist so I could listen to him and be her backup. Her numbers were getting higher and higher, meaning she began to need blood transfusions on a weekly basis. Oh, how she hated those, and they often made her feel poorly for a few days afterward.

The day came when the doctor recommended Hospice. It would help cut down on visits to the doctor and would gradually offer daily hygiene care, etc. Lavonne didn’t even balk at the idea. But she wasn’t ready to quit yet. She wanted to live a little longer.

Finally, the visiting nurse sat down with Lavonne and gently told her she didn’t have to keep getting blood transfusions if she didn’t want them. Lavonne asked if she would die without them, and the answer was “yes.” It was decision time, but she took a few days.

“Do you think I should stop?” Lavonne asked my husband.

“I think you should do whatever you are ready to do, Mother,” he replied.

“Well, I’m getting tired. Tired of fighting, tired of going to the hospital. I think I’m ready to go.”

“We will be here for you, you know that,” Monty said.

The next week, the hospital bed was moved into our living room because her room was downstairs and she could barely make it up and down the stairs anymore. Thankfully, I was only working part time and good friends were able to sit with her when I wasn’t home.

Now, if I’m honest, I wasn’t as close to Lavonne as I had always dreamed I would be. She wasn’t the warm, fuzzy type. We had grown closer, but she wasn’t one to give compliments. I will forever cherish her last words to me as I tucked her into bed. I said, “Goodnight,” and her reply back was, “Goodnight, sweet thing.” She passed away the next morning, but she left me with a warm spot in my heart.

Patty Knittel is employed at Walla Walla University’s School of Nursing. An only child, she was caregiver for her aging parents, and writes about caregiving and other aging-related topics. She and her husband, Monty, live in Walla Walla. Email her at knittelpa@gmail.com.

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