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Navigating last stage of life difficult for elderly, caregivers
Making the best of a difficult last stage of life

Date published: 1/10/2010

LIKE MANY others over the holidays, my family spent a week with relatives who live many miles away. An 18-hour car ride brought us to a mother-in-law who was recovering from heart surgery, a father-in-law who was struggling through kidney failure, and an adopted grandmother who, at 94, was suffering from congestive heart failure.

Of course we weren't expecting a rip-roaring good time--in fact we knew it was likely to be psychologically taxing.

We had hoped to squeeze in one quiet dinner on New Year's Eve. But at about the time we were to meet, I phoned my husband to say apologetically that I was rushing Grandma to the emergency room with chest pains.

No problem, my husband replied, I'm heading to the other hospital with my father, who had a bad dialysis session.

"What's happening to me?" my grandmother cried out as we finally settled into the ER waiting room.

I knew she wasn't asking for a medical diagnosis. She was asking me to explain what was going on at this time in her life. It was a global question, and she had said it so loudly that the entire population of the waiting room seemed to wait for my answer.

I could only brush a white wisp of hair from her eyes and say loudly into her "good" ear: "You're just at a difficult stage in your life."

It was an answer that was pathetically insufficient.

By the next day, everyone was on the mend, but my grandmother's question still plagued me. Developmentally speaking, what do we really know about those very late stages of life that more and more people are living long enough to experience?


Many older adults become depressed as they outlive friends and family members. All the while, they may slowly lose bodily functions as well. Caregivers often become frustrated and feel overburdened and may even feel guilty about their negative thoughts regarding loved ones.

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Dr. Delise Dickard a licensed professional counselor, is the director of Riverside Counseling in Fredericksburg.