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We are family

21 May

I have an elderly aunt, whom I have mentioned before, who is not doing well at this time. She’s 84 years old and lives 3 hours away from here, where the majority of her blood family lives. Where she lives, she has some elderly friends as well as neighbors and acquaintances of hers and her husband’s. But her family–us–we live here.

About three years ago, her husband–my uncle–passed away after a short period of illness. They never really figured out what happened, but he got sick and went downhill quickly…within several weeks. We all worried a lot about my aunt. The two of them were so close and together for so long, we didn’t know how she would maintain without her husband. They had lost their only child about five years prior to liver cancer. Her brother died years earlier after suffering from dementia. She is my father’s sister, and she (and my uncle) were always important parts of our lives. So when her husband passed, my aunt surprised us by forging ahead. My parents helped her get herself organized in her home so she could manage her bills and medications and doctors and the like. She handled minor repairs with advice and support from my father here and her neighbors/friends there. And to our utter surprise and delight, she flourished with her new independence. She started taking trips, by plane when needed, or by train to come see us. She started going to the local casinos (couple of hours away) on a tour bus with friends, and sometimes without friends. She drove her friends places in her big old Lincoln Towncar. She played Mahjong four times a week with her lady friends. She went to movies with friends and alone. It was so beautiful to see how she took control of her life.

Here and there she had some minor issues over the last three years, health-wise. She’s had a type of lung disease for years, but it hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years or so. We later learned she had some anxiety issues, but apparently she was handling them with her primary doctor.

This past March, she came down on the train for a visit. We went over for dinner the day she arrived and she indicated she wasn’t feeling great. After dinner, she was tired and seemed to be having an issue breathing. My parents watched her overnight, but she seemed to be able to sleep. However, the next morning, she got up and couldn’t breathe. So my dad called the paramedics and they took her to the emergency room. The doctors did all kinds of tests and found fluid on her lungs and a touch of pneumonia. There were a couple of scares that turned out to be high carbon dioxide and low oxygen, but when they figured it out, they took care of that. They treated her for the pneumonia and drained the fluid from her lungs. When the doctors were comfortable, they sent her home to my parents’ house. And two days later, my parents took her back to her home. They found some home caregivers that my aunt knew to come check on her and help her, and my parents came back here to their home.

Two days later, my aunt had another attack at home, and was taken back to the hospital. My dad rushed up to be with her, driving the three hours in the middle of the night. The doctors were concerned that there was fluid on her lungs again, or that something had happened with her heart. They ran tests again, put her on antibiotics again, and decided that due to her extended and repeated stays in the hospital, she was too weak to go home. They wanted her to go to a rehab facility. They moved her to rehab, my dad came home, and the next morning she was back in the hospital. We are all pretty sure that the majority of the issues she is having is from both her anxiety/panic attacks, and the Xanax and Ativan that she (and the doctors) were treating her with. Both are too sedating for her, which causes her breathing to slow, which combined with her lung issues causes her carbon dioxide to rise and oxygen to drop. All bad. Her anxiety and panic attacks have steadily been getting worse. My father says when he was with her, she could have two or three panic attacks in a row. Now I’m not sure if he’s unclear on what a panic attack really looks like (i.e. is she having one looooong panic attack, or several individual ones in a short span of time), but either way she has thus far been unable to manage her anxiety or panic attacks. She has been unable to learn any coping skills at all…

So now she’s been in the hospital for several days, and the doctors are continuing to give her Ativan to keep her loopy…which is horrifying to me. Not only because the Ativan is hell on her breathing (and CO levels and oxygen levels), but also because the Ativan is probably causing her more psychological distress. She calls my father repeatedly from her cell phone, crying and despondent. She has asked him repeatedly to come get her and take her away from the hospital. She keeps crying and telling him to get her out of there…and sometimes she calls him, cries, and hangs up. This is all aging my father so fast.

We have spent the last four days visiting multiple facilities here, trying to find someplace appropriate to get her rehabilitated physically. We want her here in the area where all the family is, so we can support her and be with her as she gets stronger, and as we attempt to get her psychological help for her panic attacks. I’m semi-hopeful that by the end of the week she’ll be here and on her way to getting help.

Why I write this? I am kind of afraid that I’m seeing my future. The last time my aunt was here, we all went to dinner, and when she said something to my mom about a candle, I saw myself in her. Or I saw her in me. She was lighting a candle for my uncle, and the candle lasts for 24 hours. But she was worried about leaving it out o the table, so someone suggested she put it in the sink to finish burning…and she said she was worried that there were curtains over the sink and what if they caught fire. From the candle down in the sink (it’s a short candle in a tall glass). But first of all, I have a thing about candles and potential fire. Second of all, that progression of worries…it could have been me. I don’t want that to be me.

I told T about this during one of our sessions, and she said that we’re working on it, so that is not my future. But the fear lurks there in the dark recesses of my brain.

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