“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” Matthew 25:40
Following is a quote from my book. In case you’re new here, A Long and Winding Road, RVing with Mom and Dad, is the story of a 7-week RV trip we took with my parents in 2007. It’s also the story of caregiving and all that entails.
You’ll notice an inordinate amount of ink is focused on bathing in this tale. That’s because The Kids’ deteriorating hygiene has become the source of [many unpleasant odors].
One of these odors emanated from the area around Mom’s feet. I washed the tennis shoes she always wore and made sure she had plenty of clean socks, but it wasn’t until I became more actively involved in her personal hygiene that I discovered the source of the smell.
Mom and I are alike in lots of ways, but wearing shoes is not one of them. I kick mine off as soon as I get in the door and don’t put them on until I’m walking out again or until the temperature dips close to the freezing mark. Mom, on the other hand, never bares a toe unless she’s going to bed or taking a bath. When they first came to live with us, I never saw her feet, because she was still going to bed and taking a bath on her own, sort of.
“Mom, it’s time for you to take a shower.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I know, but you need to anyway.”
“Why? I just took a shower.”
“It’s been several days, and tomorrow’s Sunday. You want to wash your hair and get ready for church, don’t you?”
“I’ll do it in the morning.”
After a few more rounds of verbal sparring, she’d give in and head for the bathroom, usually with Dad in tow. They emerged an hour or so later sporting fresh clothes and combed hair but often smelling no better than when they went in.
The RV trip I mentioned earlier was an eye-opener for me. Spending so much time in such close quarters made me realize how much trouble Mom and Dad were having with simple things like bathing. Dad’s problems were mostly physical. He had a hard time walking, and he had fallen a couple of times. Getting in and out of the tub in his bathroom, even with the help of the two grab bars, was intimidating, so I bought a bath stool and changed his shower venue to the walk-in shower in the master bathroom. He wasn’t really happy about the changes, but he offered less resistance, and he smelled better, so I guess it worked.
Mom was a different story. Left on her own, she had trouble turning on and adjusting the water, she sometimes forgot to use soap, and she often failed to wash all her body parts. She required a more hands-on approach, so I started going into the bathroom with her. This was when I first saw her feet and discovered the source of the smell – her toenails.
I don’t know how long it had been since her toenails had been trimmed, but they were grown out and down over the ends of her toes. Several were thick and yellow and fragrant. I was shocked and shamed. How could I let this happen to my mom? I told myself I couldn’t have known, but caregivers always feel responsible and guilty. I grabbed the toenail clippers and went to work.
It took several sessions to get the nails cut back to a reasonable length, but with regular trims, healthy nails eventually replaced the infected ones, and the foot odor disappeared. As I added another job to my growing list, I thought of something my aunt, who was a caregiver for many years, said about the elderly.
People say caring for the elderly is like raising kids, but it’s really not. Old people aren’t cute, and they know less all the time instead of more. Sometimes they smell bad, and they’re hard to get along with, and people don’t want to be around them. I think Jesus was talking about the elderly when He talked about the least of these.
It wasn’t my favorite job, but as I sat on the floor at Mom’s feet, I often thought of Jesus with a towel wrapped around His waist, kneeling at the feet of His disciples. I also thought about Mom’s life that was getting smaller all the time. If she needed her toenails clipped, it was the least I could do.