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When good health fades

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It’s better to have basic discussions about caring for a loved one before the help is desperately needed. (Courtesy photo)
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http://sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/sally-stephens/

It’s rarely good news when the phone rings early in the morning. Last week, for me, it was a call for help from a friend.

My friend has been quite ill for some time, but a new problem had appeared. I told her she needed to go to the ER and that I’d be right over to take her there.

None of us want to think about what happens when we get sick — not just-a-nasty-flu sick, but really, seriously ill. When we’re young, we think we’re invincible and avoid thinking about what can happen to our parents. When we’re older, it’s hard to face our own mortality. So we just don’t think about it. Even though we really should.

I stayed with my friend in the ER the entire day. You really need an advocate when you’re at your most vulnerable, confused and in pain. It helps to have someone who can get a nurse to help you when the staff is slow to respond to the call button. It helps to have someone listen to what the doctors are saying, while you’re focused on just trying to catch your breath.

In past centuries, people lived with their extended families nearby to help if they got sick. But today, many of us live far from our families. Some of us chose to not have children; our support structure is our friends. But we have to be willing to reach out to them when we need help.

Talking about a serious illness is difficult. But it’s better to have basic discussions about who can help, what they can do, what companies offer what services and how much they cost while you — or your elderly parents — are still feeling relatively good. Don’t wait until you desperately need the help.

I sat down with my father several years before he died, and we talked about his wishes for treatment. We made sure all his legal documents and advanced directives were up to date. We added my brother, my sister-in-law and myself as signatories on his checking and brokerage accounts so we could write checks to pay his bills and move money around to cover the checks when he was no longer able to do so himself. Our foresight and those awkward conversations made things run much more smoothly as his health declined.

One of my father’s major problems as he grew frailer was his pride. That same grit and determination that saw him through the Depression and World War II ultimately turned around and bit him on the butt. He didn’t want anyone to see him using a walker, so he stopped leaving the house. I tried to tell him no one cared — and no one did — but he just isolated himself more and more.

We all worry that others will treat us differently once they know we’re sick. Some, no doubt, will. But good friends will just blink away a few tears and ask what they can do. It’s important to have a large enough support team in place, so no one person feels overly burdened while trying to help.

It’s hard to admit when you need assistance with everyday things like cooking, cleaning or walking the dog. But the reality of illness is that you will get to the point where you do need help. Don’t hesitate to ask for it. And graciously accept it when it’s offered.

I’ve had a number of friends face serious illnesses. I’ve always tried to help them remain positive. While their diagnoses were dire, I tried to help them focus on the things they could still do, not just dwell on what was no longer possible.

Dealing with a serious illness is hard. But a little forethought and planning can go a long way to help you, your family and your friends cope. That way you’ll all be more ready and prepared when you get one of those early morning, jarring phone calls.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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