Life Lessons on Aging Parents

These days, I really wish I could think, wonder, or even worry about something other than the care of my parents. And let me just qualify that by reiterating how much I do  truly love them. I know I can’t understand right now why things had to happen the way they have. And I can only keep moving forward by continuing to believe there’s something here that will make me grow into a stronger, more compassionate person when all is said and done.

For anyone who’s been reading the things I write for any length of time, I apologize for sounding like a broken record. This is all consuming in my life right now. I pray that 2016 will bring some ease.

Over the past several years, our family has slowly begun to make our way down the inevitable path of role reversal. Mom and Dad at 75 years old, now rely on their kids more than their kids rely on them. Everything ramped up in the past twelve months and we moved Mom and Dad from their four-level home to a single-level townhouse in July. The journey accelerated when Dad broke his hip on September third this year. Next Wednesday, just shy of four months after the townhouse move, my sister and I will be moving Mom and Dad into their brand new, 975 square foot apartment in a beautiful, brand new assisted living facility.

My dad kind of hates me for this and I don’t know how much more I can take. This move is going to happen, only thanks to Mom.

My parents’ doctors have told them for months now that it’s no longer safe to live at home. After Dad’s fall and subsequent eight-week stay in a transitional facility, he returned home needing much more assistance than ever. Mom recognized that with her own health issues and physical limitations, she will not survive if she and Dad do not move to a place that provides some help and care.

For the past three months, I have tried to hold everything steady. While Dad was in transitional care, I visited and spent time with him there nearly daily. I would often also check in on Mom at their home on those same days. Or I would pick her up, arrange dinner for us, and take her along to visit Dad, often returning Mom to their home and getting back to my own place just in time to go to bed and do it all over again the next day. During those eight weeks in transitional care, Dad made several trips to the emergency room. Each time, it was me who stayed with him. Those visits all occurred in the middle of the night. It’s hard to go to work in the morning after being in the emergency room all night long and getting no sleep, so much of what remained of my PTO time has been used up. I became the point person for many of Dad’s doctors, so I have managed any phone calls and direction that came from his medical professionals.

Since Dad’s return home, I have gone to my parents’ house nearly daily to help with one thing or another. I have cooked food, shopped for their groceries and other necessities, walked the dog, cleaned up behind the dog in their backyard, taken Dad to appointments, made special trips to the coffee shop for the gourmet coffee they insist they need to have – and – done all of the research on assisted living options and facilitated all of the appointments and paperwork to get them there.

In the midst of all this, I received a promotion at work and have been desperately trying to prove it was deserved while frequently adjusting my schedule and taking a lot of time off. Thank God for an understanding boss, but I’m not sure how much longer I expect him to remain understanding and making concessions for my personal life.

While plans were being made for a safer living situation, Dad has vehemently resisted. There is no argument or reason that can make him understand that continuing to live independently is not an option. When no one else is around, he badgers Mom to death about not wanting to move. He has made this her fault. He wants to live at home, seemingly not caring that doing so means the end of Mom’s days will likely come so much sooner than it has to. Somehow, Mom has stood strong with the plan to move. While Dad continues to bully her about what should be and what shouldn’t, the reality is that she is the one who has managed their life to this point. Dad has always been taken care of, and he wouldn’t know how to take charge now if he wanted to. And the bottom line is, it’s Mom’s retirement account that is making this possible. All that remains of Dad’s income is his Social Security. Mom would never before have wanted to draw the distinction between “her” money and “his.” But it’s now become necessary. Dad doesn’t have a grip on reality when it comes to their well-being.

We’ve tried to move forward as best as possible, pretending all is normal and well. This past Monday, I took half a day off work to take my parents to an appointment to sign their lease on the apartment. We’d had a significant amount of snowfall that day, and I asked Jack at the last minute to accompany us. I was worried about managing two elderly parents, one with a wheelchair and one with a walker, on even the short walk from the parking lot to the building entrance. On the drive there, with Jack in the driver’s seat and Dad in the front passenger seat, Mom and I sat in the back. She quietly mentioned that she didn’t expect this to go well. I replied, “We’re already on our way there. What more can he say or do?”

Little did I know.

We got into the building and were greeted by the executive director. Mom asked if they could have one more look at the apartment before signing papers and the director readily agreed. After making our way up the elevator and into the apartment, Dad began asking questions about room dimensions and such. His questions were clearly only stated as a means for him to express his belief that their furniture wouldn’t fit and that there was no way this apartment was going to work for them. (It’s the largest floor plan available.) He belittled everything about the apartment. He wandered down the hall to take another look at the spacious, handicap accessible bathroom and Jack followed, trying to turn Dad’s mind in a more positive direction. Dad got ugly with Jack, swearing and yelling and I quickly stepped in. Mom was sitting in her wheelchair in the living room, crying, while the director knelt next to her, trying to offer comfort.

“Dad,” I said, feeling at the end of my rope after a year of setting my own life aside for his. “Why are we here? If you’re going to act ugly and rude, why did you let me take time off from work to bring you here? If you’re not going to do this, let’s just go back home.”

I figured I was just done. I didn’t know what they were going to do, but I’d had enough.

Dad yelled at me, saying, “Mom was going to call you this morning and cancel, but I told her she couldn’t call you at work.” (Which was a ridiculous idea because Mom frequently calls me at work. Why did he stop her this time?) He went on to say, “This is the worst thing I can imagine. I’ve never wanted to go through with this and I hate the idea of living in an apartment. I don’t need your help. I don’t need anyone’s help. I can live at home just fine on my own.”

“Really, Dad?” I yelled back. “Then how come I’ve been at your house every single day for months? How come when you moved to the town home, it was me and my sister who did every bit of the packing up the old house and unpacking at the new one? If you continue to live at home without mine and my sister’s help, who’s going to do your grocery shopping? Cook your food? Take you to appointments? Do your laundry? Take care of your dog? I’m worn out! I’m almost out of vacation time at work! I’m struggling to stay on top of my job. Half the time, I don’t buy groceries for my own family or cook, because I’m doing that for you instead. Do you care at all that your wife can’t live like this anymore? You have one son who has completely abandoned you and the rest of us. If you don’t need my help, how are you going to manage all of this?”

He retorted that his absentee son was the smartest one of all of us. (That hurt.) And he went on to say he could hire a live-in person to do everything he and mom need. I told him that would take more money than any of us had. I went on to remind him that while I was trying to stay afloat while juggling his needs with my own family’s, I’d done everything to find a way to keep them safe and hopefully, happier and healthier. If he thought there was a better way, he had an obligation to do the research before now, or ask someone – maybe one of his other three kids – to help him do the research and compare costs. But he hadn’t done a thing to explore the reality of what he was suggesting.

He seemed incredulous that I would suggest he do anything to take care of his own wants and needs. He is used to being waited on hand and foot. We’ve all enabled him all these years. He seemed only to want to keep yelling at me, and Jack stepped in to tell him we were done and that Dad was not going to continue abusing me this way. My heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest and my skin felt as if it was on fire. I had the vague sense, on top of all of my other raging emotions, to remember to be embarrassed that we had just conducted ourselves this way in front of the executive director.

“Let’s just go,” I said to Dad. “I’ll take you guys back home and you can do what you want.”

“Your mom’s going to sign the papers, so I have no choice in this matter,” he sneered. Apparently, he never had any intention of taking a stand for what he felt was right. When all was said and done, even though I’d offered him the perfect opportunity out, he only wanted to make everyone feel crappy and put the blame on Mom for putting the stamp of approval on this move.

“Fine then,” I said. “Let’s go do it.”

We returned to the living room where Mom still sat, now with her head hung low, the director still holding her hand and comforting her.

Dad sneered at her too. “Are you going to sign the lease, or what?”

Mom raised her head and straightened her shoulders. “Yes.”

I was so proud of her. The director acted as if everything was normal and cheerfully guided us back to a conference room where my dad’s personality took an about face. He signed all the paperwork along with my mom, as if he hadn’t just acted like a spoiled child. (The director later called me and told me not to feel bad about what had happened. In his line of work he’s seen it all before. I have to seriously wonder if anyone’s acted this badly in his presence before, but I was grateful for the gesture.)

The lease was signed and the first month’s rent and fees paid. We returned home in silence and for the next two days, I was at a loss, feeling crushed to have realized my dad is not the person I thought he was, and maybe never has been. On my next visit to their house, he refused to speak to me. I learned that earlier in the day, he’d threatened to call the financial planner and revoke his authorization to use the retirement account toward rent and expenses at the assisted living facility. He only stopped short when Mom reminded him the account was in her name and not his. She told me she’d invested in that account for “them,” but now, in light of Dad’s behavior, she will reclaim sole ownership of it. If anything good has come from all this, it’s that Mom appears to be growing emotionally stronger. She pulled the trigger, and now she’s forging full steam ahead, with or without Dad’s cooperation.

Two days ago, Mom asked if I would take her to do some shopping for some things they’ll need for the new apartment. She said Dad wanted to come along.

“Okay,” I said cautiously. “But he’d better be speaking to me then. I’ll be damned if I’m going to haul his ungrateful ass around and have him continue to treat me like a second class citizen.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It will be fine.”

I had my doubts. But when I arrived at their house to pick them up, I figured I’d take the high road and try to break the silence. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table when I walked in and I said, “Hi Dad.”

I thought my greeting sounded a bit tired, but if it was, Dad didn’t appear to notice. He answered in his usual sing-song way, “Hullo.”

So far, so good. I turned to take some soup out of a bag I was carrying and put it in the refrigerator. When I turned around, Dad was standing there, reaching to wrap me up in a bear hug.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I will always love you, and I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you yesterday. You’ve done so much for us and I’ve been an ass. I’m so sorry.”

I was sobbing. With my head tucked against his shoulder, I could not stop sobbing. I muttered that I was sorry too. For what, I’m not sure. I guess for not understanding how hard this has been for him. For not being patient enough to let him come to terms with it all.

All of my emotions and the hurt I’d been holding inside for so long, all of the sense of loss and desperation came flooding to the surface as I sobbed in my dad’s arms.

“Sweetheart! Honey!” He rubbed my back and tried to soothe me until finally I composed myself again. All of the anxiety and stress of the past few months simply melted away within moments of our reconciliation.

Not long afterwards, my sister showed up and the four of us went off on our shopping trip. It was wonderful. Dad seemed to have finally turned the corner on his circumstances. He was personable, enthusiastic and kind. We didn’t find everything they needed, so Dad and I made a plan for me to pick him up after work yesterday to get the last of the purchases made. Just him and me. I was on cloud nine at work yesterday, so relieved, and finally feeling a bit of Christmas spirit after all of the past several month’s difficulties.

When I arrived to pick up Dad yesterday, he was in the bedroom putting on a sweatshirt. I found Mom sitting in the living room looking tired and I said so.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s been a long day.”

When I asked why, she admitted that Dad had returned to his old self. All day long, he had badgered her about why they had to move, the expense of it all, and how they could really just make it work staying at home, if Mom really wanted to. He really can’t seem to grasp that what he wants is not possible or realistic, and that it might just kill Mom. He doesn’t seem to care that those of us currently involved in their care cannot keep it up the way we’ve been doing. Mom spoke in hushed tones, not wanting him to hear her telling me what he’d done. As usual, I was supposed to pretend all was fine. My heart was so heavy, having to so quickly give up the belief that it will all be okay.

When Dad appeared, he seemed enthusiastic about continuing to shop for things for the new apartment. This is what is so maddening about the whole thing. He goes on with me as if it’s all good. His priest or a relative might call, and Dad will talk up the plans for the move and all the benefits they’ll have in the new place. But when alone with Mom, he has this insane need to berate her and make her feel miserable about it all. I’ve long suspected and now believe that my dad is mentally abusive, though he may not even know it. It’s a heart-breaking realization.

He and I left the house and went about our shopping as planned. He never said a word to the contrary and seemed happy to be picking out new things and spending money on furnishing for his new digs.

I’m so saddened by who he’s proving himself to be. But this train is rolling, and there’s no turning back now. Our family has fallen apart and my sister and I will be facilitating this move by ourselves. One brother abandoned us completely long before Dad’s fall. The other is so crushed by recent events, he’s removed himself from the situation and has urged my sister and me to do the same. And while Jack has been beyond supportive, his patience is beginning to wear thin. We had a stupid fight last night, mainly because I’m sure he’d like to have his wife back sometime soon.

I’m still clinging to a thread of hope that once they’re settled, Dad will find a way to embrace his new living situation, even if he’ll never admit it to anyone. But I fear that he won’t give Mom a moment’s peace to relax and maybe even enjoy an easier life. I fear that she’ll go before he does and I’ll not only blame him, but be depleted of any will to continue caring for him. I fear that when either of my parents eventually passes on, I’ll be left with only bitterness and guilt.

There is no logic to any of this. I’m doing everything I think is right, while simultaneously questioning whether I’ve done the right thing by my parents.

I’ve periodically thought that I might someday write something that would help others manage this journey. But all I feel now is that we’ve been supporting an impossible cause. We’ve been navigating our way through insanity and trying to pretend everything is normal and good. The only advice I could offer anyone is to be all in or all out. Decide which way you’re going and don’t look back. Listen to your heart and do what you believe is right. Try not to sink in the midst of all of the inevitable setbacks. You’re going to feel some of the most awful feelings you’ve ever experienced, you’ll feel more alone than ever before, and family is going to show their true colors. You may not like what you see. You’ll get through it, but your world will forever look different.

I’m taking two more days off from work next week for the move on Wednesday. Afterwards, I’ll be left with a grand total of two PTO days to get through the rest of 2015, so I hope there are no more emergencies. All I can do now is keep moving towards next Wednesday. And while I’ll continue to be present for my parents’ needs when necessary, I’m going to have to find a way to take a few steps back. Christmas is coming, and I would like to think we might actually enjoy it.

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8 thoughts on “Life Lessons on Aging Parents

  1. I cried all the way through this, T. You are between a rock and hard place right now; thinking of you and praying for peace and comfort to come.

    PS – I want to follow your new blog but I can’t seem to figure out how to do so – can you help? Is there a follow button somewhere that I’ve missed? ((Hugs)) MJ

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  2. Like MJ, I was tearing up through most of this post. You write so well, I felt like I was in the situation with you. I’m so sorry your dad isn’t making this easy on you, and especially on your mom. How wonderful that she’s remaining strong. Assisted living is exactly what they need, your father just doesn’t want to admit it. Likely due to pride.
    I’m glad you stuck up for yourself and let him know how much you’re sacrificing in order to take care of him. Sounds like it sunk in a little, even if it didn’t last.
    Once again, it’s so admirable what you are doing. And Jack’s support is just as admirable. This would be even harder if you didn’t have him.
    I certainly hope this holiday season and the new year lightens up for you. Nobody is more deserving of some “self” time. Hang in there, Tee. And when the going gets rough, get to typing. We’re all willing to lend an ear.

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    • Wow, it is really hard to stay devoted when this sort of thing is going on. It is horribly familiar too. I am not sure about all in or all out. I think there is a balance where you can do things that need to be done but with a degree of emotional detachment, taking the bad stuff less personally. Can be hard though.
      Thinking of you all.

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  3. When someone you love gets hurt, it hurts you too, every time. That’s why this saga of life hurts US so much as readers. We love you.

    And we will all go thru the same thing.
    And we all get a pause for thought… “How are my children gonna handle me when things are out of my control?”
    Scary.

    I have commented on almost every post in recent months. Then, I wisely delete my tiny thoughts. When I do hit post, God deletes what He deems still tiny thoughts…all of ’em.

    I will try again.
    I know that you prolly consider the greatest accomplishment of your life as that time you up and gave away your kidney to help a fellow wayfarer in life.

    That was big!

    But in my opinion, that deed is eclipsed by the myriad number of times, over years, that you give away your heart to fellow wayfarers,…all the time. Especially when not deserved.

    This is bigger cuz so few humans are in the give business, humans take. This is noticed in the heavenlies and leads me to request a favor of you, Tee.

    On the Day of Judgment when we all line up, I was wondering if you would make sure that I am in line in FRONT of you and get judged first?
    This is important!

    For it will take God at least 1/2 of Eternity to judge you and give you all the accolades and angel applause you got coming. I will get tired standing in line behind you after the first few thousand years or so.

    But if you let me go first, I can sit down and listen to this yada yada in heaven.
    Could you please do this for me?
    It would mean more to me than a kidney.
    Thanks.
    I have more to say but this damn phone loses my content when I post. So I will stop here and try big thots later.
    Say, do you think those deleted comments are God’s first accolades to you that are coming?

    Merry Christmas!
    Keystone

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  4. OMG, Terri, like the others commented, you had me feeling the emotions with you. I’m the kind of person that wants to jump in there and take care of things for you. I want to help in some way. I have to share my less than 2 cents. What you said NEEDED to be said. Don’t question yourself one bit for doing so. Not only did you need to release all that pent up resentment, but he needed to hear it. He knows you are right. He knows your mom is right, and he doesn’t know how to change, so he won’t change. He’s probably, deep down, even mad at himself for not being able to be self-sufficient, for never really learning to take care of himself. He may be deep down envious and resentful that everyone else has grown mentally strong (like your mom in standing up to him), but he hasn’t, so he pretends to be tough by being nasty.

    None of these things are excuses, and I’m just an armchair psychiatrist. I can see why his abuse would scare away two of his grown kids. You’re tough, Miss Tee, but everyone has their breaking point. My advice (even though you didn’t ask, I can’t help my innate calling to want to care for you) is to let go at least 50% once they get settled at their new place. If you get sick from all the stress, they really will have no one to do the things you’ve been doing. Take care of Terri for a while. You deserve it. You’re a better person than I, as I think I might’ve eventually given up like your other two siblings.

    Not that this will happen with your dad, but you never know … I had a grandma (Nana) that fought going into assisted living. She was super mad at my dad for getting her a place there. It wasn’t pretty. And, btw, the executive director wasn’t lying when he said he’s seen this type of stuff before. Anyway, once Nana got settled there, she made friends. She invited us, her grandkids and kids to come eat dinner with her in their reception hall so she can introduce us to her friends. She played the organ in their lobby for everyone. She actually adjusted quite well. I hope this happens for your parents. Hugs and blessings to you, my friend.

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  5. We had similar experience with my mom, although not as verbal and aggressive. She clearly didn’t want to leave the house, though, and thought my dad should just continue doing everything when we all knew that couldn’t continue. When I would go visit, I would try to take a load off my dad, but I was honestly uncomfortable with my mom expecting the world to bend over backward for her, and I wanted to tell her that, but it was really hard. Try not to take it personally, and like you say, decide and don’t look back.

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  6. Your blog post made me cry too – it’s so difficult to watch our parents’ health decline and having our roles reversed. Both of my parents are deceased, and I think about and miss them everyday, but I know they’re still with me – especially in my memories. If things aren’t going well during Christmas, maybe you could remind everyone that you’d like to have happy memories of this Christmas!

    I hope that after your parents get settled into their new place that things will get back to normal for them and for you and your family.

    It’s great that you are writing about your struggles. Your experiences will help others who are going through similar situations.

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