ALAN HITCHCOCK gives a candid account of the realities of dealing with a parent who is steadily losing independence but refuses to discuss long-term care options.
My mother died without warning. She died while doing a spot of gardening alongside my father, Trevor, at their home. That was in 2011. Dad is now 92.
Living by himself, Dad still resides at the same house where he lost his wife. For the most part he is doing okay. He has aged a lot, his hearing is poor, and his balance and short-term memory are both dodgy. He enjoys reading the morning Herald and still gives the daily crossword a fair go, but he spends a lot of lonely hours looking out the window.
I worry about him living on his own and because I live only 15km away, I try and call in on him every day. When I can’t get in, I either ring him or my wife looks in on him. My brothers and their wives and families, as well as my children, all of whom live further away, call in on Dad when they can.
Soon after the death of my mother, retirement homes were discussed with Dad. My brothers and our wives all had differing opinions as to where Dad’s future lay. We all agreed that at some time he would have to go into care; we couldn’t agree as to when.
When I first raised the topic with Dad, I was met with a cold stare and a curt “I’m staying here”. Then to show that the discussion was over, Dad prised back the sun curtains and looked out the window.
Dad lives in a comfortable street surrounded by many friendly retirees and caring families. My brothers and I have organised Meals on Wheels lunches five days a week, a lawnmower man and a house cleaner for him. We have got him wearing a St John Medical Alarm pendant, which he has forgotten to use in the couple of situations where he found himself in need of assistance.
After successful eye cataract surgery in 2015, he passed his driving sight test and is also still driving his car. The car gives him huge pleasure and independence – he drives into town for daily visits to the bank and grocery store; he enjoys short drives out into the country and often visits Mum’s grave; and on Sunday he drives to church.
So why would we change anything? On balance, things are fine today, but what lies ahead? I don’t want to turn up there and find that he has being lying on the floor all night or has burnt himself or put himself or others at risk in any way.
The subject of retirement homes that surfaced soon after my mother’s death has resurfaced since with increasing regularity. Or to put it more bluntly, retirement homes are being mentioned more as Dad’s ‘wheels fall off’ at an increasing rate. As a family, we have a number of concerns.
As mentioned, his balance is poor and he has had about five serious falls in the last three years, resulting in assorted closed ‘black eyes’, ripped skin and strain injuries.
Amazingly, he never reports the falls. I see the damage when I turn up and find him all banged up, sitting in the chair with one of his Boy Scout self-applied bandages and liberal doses of iodine on any wounds. He swears
He cooks himself an evening meal and also fends for himself at weekends. Friends and family often drop in ‘TV dinners’ and baking. Dad sees nothing wrong with a mince ‘cook up’ on Monday morning and reheating the mince every night for tea for the rest of the week. So it’s no coincidence that by most Fridays he is, in his words, “a bit loose”. In spite of all my food safety advice, he won’t change anything and refuses to make the link.
Other things like milk expiry dates and dish and cup washing are also a concern. Dad is not worried by any of this and on one occasion, whilst I was sitting next to him in the doctor’s waiting room, I had to stare ahead trying to pretend that I wasn’t listening to him telling a rather startled stranger, “I’ve always had a cheap set of guts”.
Dad is a prime target for charities and slippery cold-callers. Not so long ago he asked me to look through his cheque book to see if he had paid a certain bill. I was staggered to see that hundreds of dollars were going out monthly to many charities that I had heard of and to quite a few that I hadn’t. I challenged him about this. I explained that my brothers and I don’t need his money (and we don’t), but as he doesn’t know what’s around the corner he should save his money better. Dad looked remorseful and promised me that he would rein in his philanthropy. A recent sneaky look showed me that the charities are all still doing very well from Dad’s benevolence.
Recently I discovered a pile of unopened SkyWatch magazines in his car shed. After a lot of rigmarole, where I got Dad to nominate me as his Sky representative, I found that, in addition to the unused SkyWatch, he was paying for Rialto, the rugby channel and all the movie channels – none of which he knew about, let alone viewed. To top it off, a few months ago he walked me into the garage and nervously showed me his newly installed water purification system. “Just under $3,000,” he announced proudly, avoiding my eyes.
“Dad, what do you need this for?” I gasped.
“Well, the sales girl showed me how my skin was packing up from showering in the rough town water,” he mumbled, still looking away.
“Your skin is packing up because you are ninety-bloody-two,” I choked.
Recently we have been able to convince Dad that he needs a back-up to his financial (mis) management, and my older brother and I have been given power of attorney to act on health and money issues. The problem now is that it appears he has no intention of actually handing any of the decision-making or signing over; the visit to the lawyers was, it seems, to get us off his back.
There are many other signs that Dad should not be living on his own for much longer. Having not mastered his TV remote, he de-programmes his TV on a regular basis and happily rings the local TV firm to send a man round to fix it. His wardrobe is getting tatty; he still loves to wear old ‘cardies’ knitted by Mum 10 years ago. He doesn’t notice or care about food spills on his clothes; his once-loved garden is pretty scruffy. The house is missing out on maintenance and care. As a family we do what we can, but he is fiercely independent, happy with the status quo and resists change and advice on all levels.
All in all, it seems to everybody except
Dad that he should soon be making the move into a retirement home. But he just doesn’t want to.
So do we take control and bulldoze over his wishes and, in so doing, risk wrecking our relationship with our father, the man who has given us so much care, financial support and love through the years? It is a huge dilemma.
Realising that I might have a better chance of discussing retirement homes with him if I did some research, I recently made an appointment with a prominent local retirement home. My wife and I were met by the very professional home manager. She was very understanding of our situation. It seems the reluctant admission by a parent is a problem that many families face. We were shown around the entire complex, looking at the various care options, ranging from residing in villas or modern apartments to care rooms and hospital rooms.
We were given and taken through a well drafted prospectus, which clearly explained the services that were available with each living option and the associated costs. There was a range of facilities and activities to be enjoyed. I was surprised and very impressed.
As we walked out, we chatted to some of the residents we knew. They seemed very happy, enjoying the companionship and all that was on offer. I made the comment to my wife that I could see myself moving in here down the track a bit. My wife succinctly pointed out that it is hard to bring someone in here if they are kicking and screaming.
Clearly, you have to decide early yourself whether you will be prepared to move into a retirement home when it is time. I contemplated this and I realised she was right. With that thought of kicking and screaming in mind, I drove round to see Dad.
“I’ve just had a look at the retirement home and I think that …“
I didn’t get the sentence finished. Dad’s usual poor hearing was working well.
“I’m not going there,” he said, quite calmly.
With that, he prised back the sun curtains and studied the house across the street. Discussion closed.