Caregiver's Diary: A New Year

My recently widowed 87 year old father has five children; oldest brother, who lives out west; older brother, me, living in Toronto; younger sister, also living out west; youngest sister in Niagara and youngest brother, also here in Toronto.

He is leaving his home in the Maritimes to come and live near youngest sister in Niagara, in a bungalow she owns, and which she is renovating for him. She has arranged a friend, Donnie, to live in the basement apartment and keep an eye on dad. He is excited about it, and all of us are immensely relieved, and deeply indebted to youngest sister. Here’s her latest update:

Well, all seemed pretty gloomy on the eve of Christmas, as I flew home from spending a week with my father. There was an enormous amount of work to do, he appeared unable to move forward on any task, he had dug in his heels on the business of selling his house, and he was going to be all alone for the first Christmas without his companion of sixty plus years. Plus, he had a leg wound sustained in a fall and it was getting worse, not better, as time went by. I live three provinces away and I was very worried about him.

So I continued to call him daily to keep him updated on the busy comings and goings of Christmas in my house. For three nights running my family packed into the car to go off to my parents-in-law for family dinners. My partner’s siblings and their kids cycled in and out and it was a weeklong orgy of visiting, gift-exchanging, eating, drinking and watching new box-sets and rented movies. My Dad meanwhile passed his days alone. A friend invited him to a quiet Christmas Day dinner and he turned down another invite for a New Year’s Eve. Some days, when I didn’t reach him until 5 PM, his voice would crack as he uttered his first words of the day.

Throughout this busy social time I kept reminding myself that next year would be very different as he would be with us. I wanted to reinstate my parents’ long-standing and popular tradition of a Boxing Day party, which we could host at his new house and invite all manner of family and friends. He could choose the wine and the menu, and put on his tweed jacket and tie. It would be so much fun!

Now that normal life has returned, there have been some surprisingly positive developments. It is funny how this experience of caring for the elderly goes up and down. It reminds me of what it was like helping our children get through their difficult teenage years. There are moments of desperation and moments of elation and breakthrough – it’s like a big roller coaster. It cannot be controlled or contrived, you just have to hang on and do your best to stick with it.

I think an important moment for my father was when he allowed himself to share some of his grief. When I was visiting him before Christmas I showed him my Facebook posting the morning after Mum died, and it featured a very lovely, outdoorsy picture taken of her when she was about my age. He was not familiar with the photo and he started to cry when he saw it. Later the same day I was downloading pictures from his camera (he doesn’t know how to do this) and I chanced upon a beautiful photo of the rocky California coast, taken from a scenic lookout on the coastal highway. My parents had done an Elderhostel there last year. I made the photo the screensaver on his computer and when he saw it, he shed tears again because Mum had enjoyed that rugged scenery with him. He let me give him a big weepy hug, and then I poured us both a stiff drink.