A Visit With My Aging Dad

Yesterday I spent two hours with my dad, visiting him at the nursing home he has resided at for several years, following a stroke in 2006.  This event took him out of his home in Strong, ME and into an ‘assisted living’ facility.  Dad’s medical needs were more than my brother or I could provide when this took place, and both of us worked full time, so we had no alternative but to have Dad enter a facility to keep him safe and take care of him.

My dad is 82 years old now.  He looks only ‘slightly’ like the man from my childhood memories who had a beer belly and a receding hairline and wore blue Dickies workwear almost exclusively. He still wears the Dickies, despite my best efforts to get him into jeans and flannel shirts…they have all ‘disappeared’ and his Dickies made it out alive from the fiery pit I asked the nursing staff to be assured they found their way to.  I know they tried, but…he’s a clever one, my dad is. He found them before they were incinerated.

But Dad is also very frail looking….in a way that I’d say he looks older than his years.  He shuffles rather than walking….he has physical ‘tremors’ that are very noticeable…his face is a lot more ‘drawn’ in years past.  He’s aged…a lot.  When I walk into the nursing home he lives in to visit with him, it seems like each visit he appears to have aged another year, even if only a few weeks or a month or so have gone by.

My dad surprised me a few years ago and took it upon himself to tell me that he ‘likely was not my real father’.  Beyond the implications for my mom’s behavior back in late 1967 when I was conceived, it did ‘shock’ me a bit to hear it.  I learned after the fact that Dad was mad with me for not visiting for six weeks (it was a horribly busy time and trips to Maine were just not possible for a while).  I was at first ‘surprised’….then a bit angry, certainly, at potentially being deceived for so many years…….and then realized that at my age I know who I am,…I have a family of my own…I don’t need to seek out an identity or ‘other family’ to complete myself….I am me….and that is the only father I have ever known.  I have never sought out any ‘proof’ one way or another of his claim, but the receding hairline that ALL the men on that side of the family have is a big clue that it was just either anger, upset, or his progressive dementia speaking.  In the end, I don’t ‘need’ to know if it’s true or not.  I was upset with him for a while, yes, for going to this length if it was all just because he was upset with me, but….I gave up too many years with him to ‘anger’….I don’t need a repeat of it. I just put it in a good place for me, that of ‘I don’t care one way or another’…and moved on.

Before I went to see him this weekend, Dad had asked me to bring him an over the counter ‘medication’ that he is convinced ‘someone stole his supply of’.  Dad has dementia, which is getting worse over time, though most days (with proper medication) he’s very lucid, and retains lots of long-term memories as well as short-term ones, but he has a tendency to fixate on things.  He regularly accuses others of stealing things from him, and this was really just the latest for him.  I stopped and picked up what he asked for, brought it to him, and he asked me to also bring him some cough medicine before I headed back for home.  I agreed, and brought him back a small bottle of tussin, but also informed the head nurse of what I’d brought to him.

When I filled in the head nurse, she mentioned that he should not have the tussin as he would just keep taking it and not recall the last time he took it. I noted to her that that was exactly why I was telling her, because I did know that, but he has so many ‘no’ answers to things, I am trying to keep that at a minimum.  She noted that it should be kept at the nurses’ station, and I said ‘give me two minutes’ and went back to Dad and said, ‘You know, I kind of forgot that they have rules about cough medicine and stuff, because too much can make you sick to your stomach, so…..I know you want to keep it, and not risk it being taken by someone, but….I don’t want to be told I can’t bring you stuff here when you want it, and don’t want them to give you a hard time for something I did, so….how about we just play along and let them hold on to this bottle up at the nurses’ station, and you just tell them when you need it?’

He thought about it for a few seconds, then said, ‘Okay…if it keeps you out of trouble,’ and he handed it over without incident.

After seven years of seeing my dad struggle with the ‘rules’ in the facility he’s in….I’ve learned how to avoid most difficult situations, and talk to him in a way that makes sense to him, makes it seem like he’s doing me a favor, and still get what ‘everyone’ needs.  I also try to remember to ‘respect him’ for being an adult…and a human being…not just another ‘old person’ who gets cranky with people telling him no. It’s a balancing act now and again, but….it’s worth it if it provides minimal upset for him in a place he can’t just ‘walk away from’. I turned the bottle in to the head nurse, and she thanked me, and took a moment to speak to me about my dad.

She noted that Dad has been ‘fixating’ on these two things for some time now (the cough medicine and the other item he asked me for.)  She said he’s had a hard time the past few weeks, and she knows his mind gets ‘stuck’ on things and can’t get past them, and it makes it a bit difficult to reason with him. I was also told that there was no need to bring him either the first item he asked for or the tussin, that they had plenty of both on hand, and regularly gave them to him, and it was really just wasting my money.

I had to disagree with her.  I know she meant well, but…..all in all I spent about $23.00 in over the counter stuff for him. I agree that they should ‘administer’ the items to him, to meet their rules and regulations, but aside from that….this is a man who lost his (second) wife after 25 years of marriage.  This is a man who many people were convinced would take his own hunting rifle and ‘end it’ within a few months after she passed. This is a man who never had a checking account, or a credit card, of his own….didn’t grocery shop…didn’t place stock in doctors all that much…and yet he took care of himself after his wife’s death for more than a year before his stroke, with minimal outside assistance. This is a man who then had to give up his home, his friends, his very identity in Strong and learn to live with having a roommate at age 76….with having to dine with people who regularly take his seat because they don’t know any better…with having people wander in and out of his room and get into his things because they are convinced it’s their room….with having to ask for assistance with the basic necessities of life like bathing and going to the toilet.  This is a man who has given up nearly 100% of the life he made for himself and complete control over his medical, financial, and domestic arrangements…….and for $23.00…..he got just a tiny bit of ‘control over his own life’ back.

It was, to me, worth every penny.

I see so many people at this facility who never have anyone visiting them when I’m there. The faces don’t rotate all that much in this unit, and I’ve been visiting Dad whenever I can for nearly seven years now.  The residents sit and stare at the t.v., or the window…or the wall.  There’s very few of them who smile.  They gasp and whisper when I bring the boys in and say how handsome they are.  I know it’s probably the last place on earth a seven and eight year old want to hang out, despite it being their grandfather, but it brings him a small amount of pleasure amidst so much ‘unpleasantness’ that he now has to deal with….not only the ravages of age, but having to spend his final days in the last place on earth HE wants to be.  And yet he always manages to set aside some cookies, or a balloon, or some other ‘trinket’ he came across and sends them home for the boys.  It’s nothing fancy, nothing of value really, but for him it’s likely the whole world to ‘give something’ to his grandsons.  I never say no, no matter what it is.

I hate seeing my dad there, knowing how he dislikes it himself, and I always leave the nursing home sad and frustrated that even if my head knows it’s exactly where he does need to be, my heart hates to see him there.  I realize my final memories of dad will be in an overly-warm bleak industrial building that smells of urine and disinfectant, and that he will get more frail and more ‘old’ and probably won’t even know who I am, and will look at me like I’m this intrusive asshole who keeps trying to talk to him.

And then he’ll be gone, and I’ll never see him again.  I’ll never have the chance to talk to him and hear his stories about growing up in Brownfield, Maine and working for a railroad company and cutting school to go fishing. I’ll never hear any more tales of his stalking and murdering deer in the woods (my term for it) and his days as a truck-driver and mechanic and all the people he met along the way, and some days I just want to cry about it.  Some days I have cried about it.  I wasted so much time being mad at this man and have been blessed with the opportunity to speak to him about it, to explain what had precipitated it, and to hear him apologize to me for things said and done 30 years or more ago.  I have been blessed with the chance to finally rip off those scabs and see that the wounds beneath have been healed.  I have had the rare gift of emptying my heart to the man who made me, and hearing him say to me ‘I was a damned fool to say what I did, and I’m so sorry…you are my son….I have always loved you, and nothing will ever change that.’  I learned that no matter how I felt 30+ years ago that someone who was supposed to love me unconditionally and (to my mind) didn’t…..really did….that I never lost his love, and he never lost mine……we just lost how to express it to one another.  Fortunately we figured it out before it was too late.

There are years that I didn’t speak with him, and thankfully we have worked through all that, but it’s still not easy to visit him where he is.  I have had others say to me ‘Why do you go see him if it makes you unhappy?’ and ‘I don’t think I could handle it.’  The answers to these things are simple.  I feel sometimes like I can’t handle it.  But I can always leave…he can’t…..that’s what keeps me going back, beside the fact that I love him.  And as for it making me unhappy? It makes him happy to see me….it’s easier for me to find a way to deal with my ‘unhappy’ about it than to leave him there unhappy and nothing to do about it and nowhere to go. It’s not about me. It’s about him, and doing these small things for him.

All my shit about it I can figure out later.


4 thoughts on “A Visit With My Aging Dad

  1. Patricia Small says:

    Thank you, Brad. This one is a gift to all of us who are languishing over our aging parents as we watch the slow march into dementia. Absolutely, the honoring of a person’s need to have some control over something is sometimes the only thing we can give in love. The rest becomes sad duty that can wear away years of your own life before its time.
    But you have another gift to give, Brad. You are a gifted writer. Tell his story.

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