I had decided to take an early retirement — to step down, to back away, to open the door for others as the door had been opened for me. I was just 56, still young enough to enjoy all that leaving my career offered and ready to embrace a carefree future.
Or so I thought.
Following my decision and actual departure in the summer of 1989, I spent a year on cloud nine, living the “retirement dream.” There were no more early mornings, no yard duties, no meetings, no reports, no bouncing from school to school as I had done for many years as a learning resource teacher. But then my comfortable, welcoming world abruptly took an unscheduled turn. A new “career” emerged — and it became my life.
“My retirement did have purpose and, in many ways, has given me a sense of fulfillment and pride.”
The role I began to play was not one I chose — rather, it chose me. Perhaps you have stood on the same stage. Perhaps you also accepted the role you were handed. Perhaps this story could be yours. My retirement from teaching gave way to a necessary and new position — that of a family caregiver. And this is a role I would play for 34 years. But strangely enough, now that I have reached the venerable age of 91, the person I am caring for is me!
As I tell my story, I’m not looking for sympathy but to reflect on the reality that so many of us experience — our retirement dreams of freedom and fun give way to a different reality — but one that is part of the circle of life and can bring its own rewards.
If your story is like mine, you will understand the highs and lows of being a giver of care. The role brings challenges but also a sense of purpose, and a recognition that the beauty of retirement is that we now have the time and ability to serve those who need us most.
This is how it all began …
My husband’s aunt, who was a widow and had no children, was sadly and unexpectedly diagnosed with ovarian cancer at McMaster University Medical Centre in Hamilton, Ont. The year was 1990, and it is forever embedded in my memory. She needed help and we were there.
For the next three years, while my husband ran his business, I took his aunt to appointments, to surgery, further treatment, and, finally, Hotel Dieu Hospital, where her last days were spent in 1994. It was a sad and eye-opening experience for everyone who knew and loved this gentle, elderly woman. But it was just the beginning of my journey of care.
My 84-year-old father had begun to show signs of dementia and was experiencing a variety of other ailments that had taken a toll on his fragile body. His health was touch and go — too much for my 80-year-old mother to manage alone. As a family, we decided that the best available option was a long-term care home in a different city. My mother sold her house and moved closer to me. It made life easier for everyone, another hurdle met and crossed; his subsequent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s did not come as a surprise. We were able to visit Papa John several times a week, and on each visit, he greeted us with little recognition, but he had a smile on his face and blew us a kiss when we left. My husband, mother and I sat by his bedside as he left this earthly life in 1997.
Losing the elderly is sad, but it is the final stage of “being,” as we are told. Life goes on. I repeated those words like a catechism, etching them tenderly into my palette of memories. My personal growth would also go on. I now had my 84-year-old mother to consider. She would be my focus and her well-being my goal. But despite my best-laid plans, life had once again taken a turn.
In 1996, my son was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer and underwent complex surgery. While he remained in remission for many years, the threat of a recurrence loomed, and a second surgery was necessary in 2015. Watching your child, no matter their age, suffer and face an uncertain future is traumatic.
Although John is nearing age 68, the effects of his cancer, and concerns about a possible relapse, still lurk in the minds of his immediate family and in mine. The years between the first frightening diagnosis and today have affected all of us — his wife, his son, and his extended family. But, most importantly, John is still here, a blessing for which we offer thanks.
Following John’s original surgery, life briefly returned to a variation of normal. My husband, Don, had not been well for some time, experiencing frequent transient ischemic attacks, with stroke-like symptoms that last a few minutes — with some, to his dismay, on the golf course. “That is a true handicap,” I told him, trying to inject some levity into his fractured world. Over the next several years, I provided care, support and encouragement to Don as he fought valiantly through many other afflictions, including a pacemaker in 2000, a triple bypass in 2001 and macular degeneration in his later years, which affected both his sight and independence.
Although the years following retirement presented many challenges, there were many treasured moments as well.
My mother, Molly, a sweet little British import, came to Canada in 1919 at the age of six on the Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic. The ship was designated a troop ship, carrying our soldiers back to Canada from the First World War in Europe; Molly’s stepfather was a wounded Canadian soldier. My mother was always a trouper, a real British bulldog. When my dad passed in 1997, she maintained her little Port Colborne, Ont., home until 2000, when she relocated close to me in Fonthill, Ont. For 18 years, she resided at Shorthills Villa Retirement, where I visited several times each week. It was also my pleasure to conduct a lively poetry class for the residents there, along with sharing frequent meals and special occasions such as Christmas, Mother’s Day and birthday parties. Molly’s 100th birthday was a blast!
Caretaking can be a physical and emotional challenge, but supporting and spending time with a loved one in their time of need can also bring a sense of intrinsic spiritual satisfaction. Molly was a joy to visit, always smiling and singing songs from her childhood. I will forever cherish my time with her. I felt an uplifting warmth and sense of comfort every time I saw her. She passed away in May of 2018 at the wondrous age of 104.
In 2017, our eldest daughter, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, moved here from British Columbia to be with Don and me — to lend support and to be supported herself as her struggle to breathe continues. Now, since my husband’s passing in March 2022, we two will look after each other.
No, I did not spend my retirement on a sunny beach in Spain, on a mountain trail in Nepal, painting in a unique style like Picasso or learning a new language. I did not further my formal education, stitch quilts.
But my retirement did have purpose and, in many ways, has given me a sense of fulfillment and pride. I believe many of you reading my words today have also played a leading role as a caregiver. Perhaps you are playing it still. This is a life only retirement and opportunity can bring. As a fitting conclusion to my story, my legacy of caregiving has been passed down to my youngest child, Tracey. She, too, is a recently retired teacher who has waited in the wings, my most significant understudy. She is ready, willing and able to pick up the torch and provide care to the members of her family, including me, who need assistance.
Caregivers will always play an important part on this stage called life for those who need us most. And so, I drink a toast to you, my kindred spirits, for a job well done. For now, my final role is clear — to be the best possible caregiver for MYSELF.