For expectant parents, there is no shortage of books or blogs offering advice on child-rearing. But at the other end of life, when we come to deal with failing parents, it seems each family is left largely to chart its own path. In our case, it’s my father, now 95, who is challenging our ability to negotiate the many complexities of aging.
If there’s a common thread to the attitudes of many old people, it’s resistance to change, and that’s certainly the case with my father, who has stubbornly resisted repeated encouragement and increasing pressure by me and my siblings to make the move from his home, where he lives alone, to assisted living.
Physically, he’s capable of living alone, but short-term memory loss, brought on by Alzheimer’s, has increasingly left him disoriented and anxious about day-to-day living. Disorientation, of course, is a chronic condition, and not just for old people in a world where change is relentless and the pace of change increases by the moment. I can only imagine how it must seem for a 95-year-old, born one of 13 kids on a rented farm in South Dakota back in 1924. When my father was young, my grandfather hooked a horse to a wagon to get to town. In the winter, they hooked the horse to a sleigh. What we see today as basics, like electricity and indoor plumbing, came only many years later.
For my father, his own home, surrounded by his familiar things, is a refuge from a world that looks increasingly unrecognizable in the year 2020. I understand that perfectly. It’s the same reason I live in a log cabin in the woods, where I can look out each day on our familiar landscape and at least pretend, for a few minutes each day, that humanity isn’t destroying the world.
One of the many changes we’ve seen in society is the way in which we treat the elderly. In many ways, it’s been a change for the better. Programs like Medicare and Medicaid have allowed seniors to age without the risk that poverty will leave them without the services they need. Assisted living facilities offer a range of services, from independent living to round-the-clock care, that can ease the transitions brought on by aging. Some seniors are eager to take advantage of such options, feeling that it frees them up to enjoy their remaining years without the worries that come from living on their own. They enjoy the company of others, make new friends, and thrive in assisted living communities.
That, unfortunately, would not describe my father. After a tour of one such facility this past fall, I asked him what he thought. “Too many old people,” grumbled the 95-year-old curmudgeon.
I’ve given up arguing with him about it. We have had the same argument, sometimes lasting hours, and it always ends the same way every three minutes, which is about the length of time it takes him to forget he just made that same argument moments ago. And then we go around and around again, like a hamster on its wheel. It doesn’t take long to figure out you’re getting nowhere.
It doesn’t help that my father has about 90 years of experience as a debater, a skill that he honed over the years with three of his brothers who all became professors at major public universities. For them, time spent together invariably centered around a ten-mile hike in the morning, followed by cocktails and hours of spirited argument over economics, politics, foreign affairs, or the meaning of life. I participated in a few of their soireés over the years and it was always invigorating and a test of your rhetorical skills. While my father may not remember whether it’s winter or summer outside, his ability to parry our arguments, at least in three-minute increments, has clearly become an innate ability, like muscle memory in a star athlete.
And because there aren’t many resources out there about how to handle old people and the difficult discussions that aging makes necessary, we tend to rely on the anecdotal. A neighbor or a cousin, or a friend of a friend, who offers up their own solution, which usually involves a form of kidnapping. “Just put ‘em in the car and tell ‘em you’re going to lunch,” is a pretty common one. It’s just that lunch is set at an old folks home and it’s a one-way trip.
After hearing a number of such “success” stories, we even planned our own such intervention while we had some time off over the recent holidays. We had a very nice room waiting for him at the Vermilion Senior Living in Tower, had rented a U-Haul for his furnishings, and had the story line about “going to lunch” all set. His doctor, who has been pleading for assisted living for months, prescribed a sedative, that we hoped would leave him uncharacteristically compliant during the four-hour trip from his home in Plymouth to Tower. The doctor suggested we try it out a couple days beforehand to make sure it would have the intended effect. My brother has been staying with my father in recent weeks to care for him and he administered the medication in the morning a couple days before our planned moving day. A few hours later, my brother called with the bad news. Far from calming him, my father had responded to his new medication by fixing a long-broken bird feeder and shoveling the snow from his entire driveway. Which just goes to show that my father is contrary in every way.
As I’ve told my poor wife Jodi: “You’re seeing your future,” which means if she had any sense, she’d be planning to divorce me. After dealing with my father, I could hardly blame her.