When Your 94- and 85-Year-Old In-Laws Come to Stay

11/15/2011 03:57 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2012
  • Barbara Dehn Nurse Barb is a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner, lecturer at Stanford and appears regularly on TV as a health expert.

.....I heard a little voice in my head, "Put your oxygen mask on first." I knew that in order to help my 94- and 85-year-old in-laws, Felix and Edna, who were both in wheelchairs get through the TSA security line in the Albany airport in under 3 hours, I'd have to get my stuff in the grey bins in a nanosecond and then I could concentrate on helping them.

Felix and Edna are coming to stay. They're coming to escape the bitter cold winters of the Northeast and enjoy some warmth and sunshine in California. After I quickly placed all my liquids, creams, jellies and whatevers along with my laptop into the bins and on the conveyor, I peeled off my coat and sweater and turned around to get Felix's shoes off and help him out of his wheelchair.

Felix needed a pat down, since his pacemaker would likely interfere with the normal screening, and who knows, set off a nuclear missile launch, or jolt the poor guy into a new and interesting arrhythmia, who knows? Anyway, my mother-in-law, Edna had dutifully worn slip on shoes and nudged her carry-ons through the dark tunnel of the screener. She was waiting patiently in her wheelchair on the other side of the TSA gauntlet.

Whew, one down, one to go. As Felix was being gently escorted through the screening gate, I walked through the regular portal quickly and went to the conveyor to retrieve my shoes, sweater and laptop. I was just reaching for Felix's shoes so that I could put them back on him, when a TSA security officer leaned over the conveyor belt and asked, "Is there any chance that this belong to the older gentleman you're traveling with?"

I looked up with a slight sense of dread, "What did I forget to remind them of?" I wondered.

There it was, a polished cherry wood pen knife as thin as a pen and as long as a finger. And yet, that little pen knife was a Weapon of Mass Destruction in the eyes of the Transportation Security Administration. The high gloss of the lacquer shone in the glare of the TSA lights in the security line. I looked up to see the smiling face and raised eyebrow of the kindly TSA employee whose badge indicated that he was Paul. "Sorry, you can toss it, or you'll have to go back to the ticket counter and check this through. Is this a family heirloom?" I didn't even hesitate. "Yes, it is."

Felix agreed, "I don't want to lose that."

Later, at the ticketing counter I was wondering why anyone would bring a pen knife for a plane ride. What on earth compelled him to secret away his pocket knife for this trip? We checked 4 freaking bags and I must have mailed 85. Why would you carry a pocket knife? What was going through his head? Why did I spend so much time helping them sort out all the liquids and medications and get those into quart sized bags? Why didn't I think to ask about all the other stuff? Why, why, why?

Why would someone take a pen knife on a plane? Habit? Or is it just in case you might find some interesting wood and, I don't know, want to whittle? Or carve a little knick-knack? Or maybe field dress a squirrel? What was he thinking? Geez, or maybe cut up some fruit, or use it to open up the headset packaging? ARGGHHHH.

So there I was standing at the ticket counter putting a pen knife the size of, well, a small pen, into a box that could easily hold a toaster oven, then taping it and labeling it. After I unclenched my jaw, and took a few deep Yoga breaths, because I've heard that shallow, deep breathing helps to minimize tension and helps you relax, I mulled over how I would greet my wheelchair bound 94 and 85 year old in-laws again after going through the security line, AGAIN.

As I exhaled, I realized that humor was the best course of action and that without it, I would be forced to get the pen knife back from the airline and use it to open up one of my own veins. So, I decided then and there, and this was a profound moment, and one that I'm sure I'll always look back upon as a moment of clarity and wisdom. In that moment, as the escalator reached the top, I realized that in order to survive this experience without needing a lot of prescription medication myself, I would need to look for the humor in these kinds of situations and laugh as much as possible. Not laugh at them, but at the situation.

"Ok," I said to myself, that's your strategy. "Humor." And, at least for that moment, it seemed like the wise course of action. One more deep breath and I was renewing my acquaintance with the TSA security screeners.

I spied a group of TSA folks milling around my in-laws, so I walked right up to Felix and asked very loudly, enunciating each word clearly, "Ok Dad, Do You Have Any Other Weapons of Mass Destruction? Any Flame-Throwers? Any IEDs? Anything else that might prevent us from boarding the aircraft?"

And, then, quick as a wink, he answered, "I don't know, you better check my bag." Then we all had a good laugh, especially the TSA employees and proceeded down toward the gate with a pit stop at the nearest bathroom and our next adventure.

I'm writing these tales about caretaking the elderly in part as catharsis and in part to hopefully help others in the same boat. When caring for the elderly and with caregiving in general, I think laughter is the best medicine. At least it is for me. I'll also include any hints or wisdom gathered along the way. Since I'm in the sandwich generation, I've decided my sandwich is going to be the Oreo Cookie Kind of Sandwich. I want to hear from you, especially if you're a caregiver.