David Propst lives, once again, in his boyhood home, a generous ranch on a hillside with a fantastic view of the valley beyond Anniston, AL. In between David went to college and graduate school, served in the Peace Crops in Yeman and Poland, and taught English all over the world. “You move around and get paid for it.”
Four years ago, while he was living in Marrakesh, David decided to return to Anniston and manage care of his aging parents. “Every place I’ve lived is good; even my hometown is good. It’s changed, but it’s still good. Everything changes. You infer it as you remember. But our country takes its toll. When you are in Morocco, or Haiti, you are closer to the ground.”
David’s mother’s dementia has evolved over twenty years from occasional memory lapses to the point where she requires a constant companion. His father, who practiced law for thirty-three before serving as the Federal Judge for the US District Court for the Northern District of Alabama even longer, has had a series of physical ailments. The day I visited David, his brother Steve was visiting from Atlanta and coordinating his father’s recent transfer from a rehab facility to the local hospital, while David provided his mother’s direct care after her day attendant’s shift ended.
David is a gentle and patient man, comfortable with his decision to return home and manage his parents. care. “It’s too bad it’s become part of the medical system. It would be more interesting to look at aging and dying as an architectural issue rather than a medical one. How space and relationships can adapt to aging. As soon as someone says, ‘This is for your own good,’ be wary.”
I asked David how caring for his parents has evolved over the past four years. “On a day-to-day basis it seems like nothing changes, but when I think of what my mother could do four years ago, the change is real. Everything works at a different scale. You only know what’s optimal when it’s passed. You never know what works; you only know what doesn’t work. It’s best to let my mother do as much as she wants.”
David sleeps in the same room as his mother, wakes to her needs, and provides direct care for twelve nighttime hours. During the day he runs the household while a daytime aide is at her side. I wondered how he took care of himself. “If you’re engaged with what you’re doing, and you’re okay with it, you take care of yourself. It just happens as part of the process.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“It’s always the same, constantly changing but repeating the same patterns. The way I see my house and how it’s evolving now, its slowly accommodating two people whose lives are slowing down. Yet as I manage that slowdown, I have to react fast to stay ahead of their changes.
“You know what’s going to happen. What is material will break down. The mystery is the timing. That’s what we cannot know.
“For me, I see that things don’t work institutionally. Everything is broken into categories. We are all myopic about things. But in the end, that’s not how we go.
“My mother is really just like everyone else. She has her wants and needs. The challenge is that she needs constant attention and management so you are much more involved in another person’s reality. She can’t change her perspective, you have to change yours.”