If you remember nothing else from this article, let it be this: Talk to your family about the issues of aging before there is a crisis. Procrastination is your enemy. There will never be a perfect moment to bring up the subject.
On the morning of February 20, 1996, I lived in Los Angeles, had a good corporate job with excellent benefits, enjoyed a caring group of friends and sang in the church choir. I had been in California for 13 years and thought my life was stable. I was mistaken.
At 7 a.m., my phone rang and I heard the voice of Lisa Huff, my parents’ next-door neighbor in Dallas. In 34 years she had never called me. I braced myself for bad news, and she produced it promptly.
She told me that my dad was walking up and down in front of the house as if he were in a trance. She thought he was having a stroke. Lisa’s sidewalk diagnosis proved correct. Caring for my mother, who had early Alzheimer’s, had taken its toll on my 86-year-old father. Within hours he was in intensive care, I was on a plane to Dallas, and my world changed forever.
When I walked into the hospital room, I could hear my parents’ friends breathe a collective sigh of relief. The only child, the surviving son, was back. The man with all the answers had arrived! If only that had been true: I didn’t even know the questions. Now it was too late for the conversation we never had: Dad couldn’t talk, walk and had no control of his bodily functions. Mother was confused, unsure of what had turned her life upside down.
Though it was time for me to take charge, I didn’t have a plan or the most basic information I needed. During my twice-yearly trips home, Dad and I talked about “important” things like the Dallas Cowboys or who should be elected president. I knew how he stood on the federal deficit but had no idea about his own investments.
Every time I asked a question about Mother’s condition or mentioned the possibility of their selling the house and moving closer to his sisters, Dad would leave the room. And I let him get by with that year after year! Why didn’t I follow him, let him know that I wanted to be there when they needed me, but couldn’t help if he wouldn’t talk to me? Instead of confronting my dad, I remained a polite Texas son, he stayed in denial, and we talked about football instead of the future.
Suddenly faced with making scores of decisions, I had to start from scratch. I had never seen their wills or the contents of their lock box, didn’t have powers of attorney and had never discussed end-of-life decisions. I knew little about their finances (other than how much they’d lent me) and nothing about their insurance. It turns out they were insured for everything except long-term care.
The hospital officials wanted Dad out in one week. I had just seven days to find a rehabilitation center where he might possibly learn to walk and talk again. I knew they couldn’t stay in Dallas, as most of our family was in Central Texas. In a crisis, friends are wonderful but family is essential.
Two days later I flew to Austin and inspected four rehabilitation centers in one day. I chose St. David’s Rehabilitation for a very logical reason: A nurse smiled at me. I needed a smile badly that week. They told me that they’d move Dad in an ambulance the following Monday. Then the question was what to do with Mother.
Two cousins lived in Georgetown and guaranteed their eventual sainthood by volunteering to keep Mom while I reconstructed my life. First I had to get her there. Mother announced in her sweetest Southern belle style: “Jim, I’m not leaving Dallas.” She could no longer live alone but was unaware of that fact.
For the first time, I packed for my mother. More accurately, I transferred the contents of her closet into the trunk of their Buick. Monday morning brought the real challenge—getting her into the car. That led to the first of many therapeutic lies. As Mother sipped her coffee, I said, “Would you like to get some ice cream?” Mother never turned down ice cream—not even at 8:30 in the morning. She smiled, put down her cup and happily got into the car. We drove away from her home of more than three decades, and she never saw it again.
True to my word, I stopped at the first Dairy Queen we came to and bought her the biggest, gooiest chocolate sundae imaginable, but somewhere around Waco she must have realized we were going on a longer ride. When we got to my cousins’ house, I kissed her goodbye, headed for the airport and jumped on a plane for LA. My body went back to work the next day, but my mind remained in Texas.
Two weeks later I returned to Austin to check on Dad’s progress. There wasn’t any. This fiercely independent man had flown 75 World War II combat missions in a B-17. Although he was tethered to tubes, his mind was sharp, and he knew what he wanted. When I walked in his room, he gathered his strength and forced out three words: “Get … me … pills.” He wasn’t talking about aspirin. He wanted me to help him kill himself. As he was nearly deaf, I had to yell my response.
“Dad, I can’t do that, I’ll go to jail! … Not hell, Dad, jail! … Well, maybe hell, too! I can’t do it.”
He was not pleased with my response. Later that day, one of his doctors suggested a prostate operation that might restore his bodily functions. It worked, and within two weeks Dad was using the restroom unassisted. That’s when he decided he wanted to live.
For six months, I flew to Texas almost every other weekend and finally realized that I couldn’t do what needed to be done from 1,000 miles away. I had to make a choice: move my folks to California where they knew no one but me and things were much more expensive, or quit my job and move back to Texas where I had not lived in 30 years. I chose to parent my parents and never regretted it. However, mine was not a planned parenthood. I was woefully unprepared to be a caregiver.
If you remember nothing else from this article, let it be this: Talk to your family about the issues of aging before there is a crisis. Procrastination is your enemy. There will never be a perfect moment to bring up the subject. If all else fails, remind yourself that there are no meaningful discussions on a respirator.
Fear keeps many intelligent, caring families from having this necessary discussion. For parents, major changes late in life are understandably difficult. It may mean selling their home, downsizing, moving in with a child or living in a retirement community. It takes courage to face the realities of aging with wisdom and grace.
Adult children have fears of their own. Many don’t speak up to “spare” their parents’ feelings when they really want to spare themselves a difficult discussion. They tell themselves—often mistakenly—that a candid conversation will lead to crying, yelling or angry feelings. That may happen in some families, but crying and yelling are far better than not having the information you need when that call comes at 7 a.m.
Jim Comer, author of When Roles Reverse, speaks on caregiving to audiences across America. Visit his website here.