A FAMILY’S CHALLENGES OF HEART AND MIND
Andrea S. Gould
ON CHRISTMAS DAY, MY DAD CAME TO LIVE WITH ME IN TUCSON. Sounds simple—until we de-construct that sentence.
The journey began November 1st, when my sister, who lived in New York near my father, delivered a short message on my voice mail. “I am beginning to think differently about Arizona—I mean, as far as Dad goes. He’s just languishing in his bed. Maybe it’s time for him to have more of a life.”
At the time, Dad had lived in New York City all of his 93 years. He is a sturdy, healthy, although increasingly frail, World War II veteran. Like many of his mates, he enlisted at the outbreak of war and served wholeheartedly as a medic in the Coast Guard until he returned to his bride and a new practice in podiatry in 1945.
Having weathered my mother’s sad but fortunate descent into a sudden stroke and soft death in 2009, Dad has been “surviving” in his Queens apartment with little or no social environment. Like many men of his era, his network was largely a function of professional interest and his wife’s social networking—in the old sense of the word. Neither of these forces has been present in his life for a long time. Now, his social interaction has shrunk to a few hourly visits from a devoted caregiver who makes her daily rounds to other homebound seniors with extra hours for my adorable Dad, who is good company no matter where he is.
My sister and I assumed he was lonely, even though he is not one to play the complaint card. Most inquiring phone calls from either of us elicited an even-handed “I’m fine, sweet girl.” And yet, our heartstrings were plucked by the perception of Dad, alone, choosing the bedroom TV as his main activity. He calls this “relaxing,” and claims, “I’ve had my life.” Most days he’s content to go along with “whatever happens.” He initiates nothing, saying, when asked about his desires, “Let’s see what happens.”
Last August, when a halogen lamp tipped off his night table and burned the skin on his upper arm, the incident triggered a quick return to the east coast from me, as Sis was on Martha’s Vineyard and getting a ferry ticket was more difficult than arranging a flight from Tucson to JFK. The ensuing flurry of attention and service coordination was a wakeup call.
To be clear, I had wanted Dad to live in Arizona since I moved here two years ago. The lifestyle and mindset of Tucson is highly focused on end-of-life issues, and I have found myself immersed in substantive discussions of such matters as a health professional in my 60s. Now it was my turn to plan alternative lifestyle decisions, not only for my father, but also for me as his daughter and an elder, myself. I wanted him to spend the last chapters of his life here. There would be rich lessons in this awesome opportunity—he would get to be my teacher. Again.
It was soon after my sister’s call that we made the decision: an isolated life in Queens, New York wasn’t serving our father best in these last chapters. With my husband’s blessing, I chose a highly recommended, perfect-sized senior living establishment for Dad called Amber Lights; agreed to the only apartment they had available; paid up front; estimated his needs and the price tag for such; moved Dad’s money to have it liquid enough; made applications; investigated the quietly available veteran’s pension; began daunting paper work; coordinated medical records; rented furniture; bought colorful pillows and bedding; sampled the food; began chatting with the staff; interviewing residents and preparing my mind and heart by planning a reception for Dad with my Tucson friends and support system.
My sister and I wanted “the best” for Dad, whatever is possible for a 93-year-old man with uncomplicated dementia. We want him surrounded with community, seconds away from responsive care, capable of receiving visitors, with access to whatever kind of help he needs. Here he would have me and my “family of friends” in sunny Tucson. I can visit every day and be in his life. We’re trading one accessible daughter for another, with assurance of a more peaceful and secure space around him.
There are risks, of course. Moving a frail, elderly man across country is nothing short of a military maneuver. Saying goodbye to his caregiver, Anne Marie, a devoted angel and functional third sister, would be the heartbreak for Dad. He is the kind of man who loves one woman at a time, deeply, and has never had to search for female companions—one always appears. My sister found Anne Marie when my mother died; she has been a huge hero for him.
I realize there is no perfect solution. Like many families, planning for the end of life is not up front and visible. It dwells in a soup of hopes and projections, denials and fantasies. While we might figure the financial factors, the decisions of the heart are harder to surface, more difficult to manage when “the time comes.”
On Christmas Day, my sister and her partner flew with Dad to Phoenix, then drove through the shrinking desert between Tempe and Marana, where my husband and I live in a place called Dove Mountain. The plan was to have Christmas dinner together, have Dad stay in our guest room, and convene the next day to begin what we felt was the “necessary transition.”
This is new territory for me. I’m anxious about it. His life is in my hands now. I know that we can only make our gestures with the highest intentions; ultimately, life will show itself the way life will. Dad is famous for saying , “I trust you girls. You will do what’s best for me, I know that—you are my treasures.”
Dad is also famous for saying, “We’ll deal with it when the time comes.” The time, as far as we can see, has come.
Next month: Chapter 2—a New Year, a New Era of Fatherhood and Daughterhood
Andrea S. Gould, Ph.D. is a New York State licensed psychologist and community organizer. She is CEO of Lucid Learning Systems, LLC., an Arizona-based human resources company, while also maintaining a practice in “Uncommon Coaching,” helping clients dealing with major change or life transitions. She is the author of The Virgin Widow, available on amazon.com. Contact: DraGould@lucidlearning.com or visit her website, www.lucidlearning.com.
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