This has been a hard blog to write, and it’s been a while coming. I’ve been reading for years about people having to care for their aging parents and how devastating it can be…but I never thought I’d have to worry about that. Mom wouldn’t be a problem. I always knew she would die fairly young (how did I know, you ask? She told me! Many times over the years, from the time I was a very little girl, I heard her rant on about how she was going to die young of a stroke as her mother did before her, and THEN we’d all be sorry we treated her so badly! And, what do you know? She created her own reality – although she did wait until she was 72, an age that’s getting younger all the time.) But my Dad? Never. He was too strong, too stubborn, to go out with a whimper. I pictured him going on full steam as he always had until he decided he was ready to check out the territory on the other side. Then he’d be gone, just like that, no muss no fuss. Denial is a wonderful thing, as long as it lasts.
Dad had lived alone since Mom passed in 1993, and for many of those years he fared very well. He thrived on having his own space, something I recognized because I have the same sort of make-up (what a surprise). My brother and I DID insist he make a fresh pot of coffee every day rather than make 12 cups on a Monday and flip the warmer switch each morning thereafter until the coffee was consumed as he had been doing, but other than that, we didn’t feel the need to interfere. Dad kept the house fairly neat, he cooked occasionally but most often ate sandwiches and take-out (and he ate well), and he cared for the yard and the woods behind his house as he always had. Half a dozen widowed ladies fought over who would bring him his next pot of bean soup – until one of them boldly asked him to accompany her on a day trip with her Senior group, and thereafter they dated for ten years. It was a sweet and touching relationship, full of laughter and love, and it even led to my brother meeting and marrying her daughter. When Esther passed away, we were all very worried about Dad. He was in his early 80s now instead of the active 70 he had been when Mom died, and we watched him closely.
He continued to live alone, refusing even to consider any sort of assisted living. He was still fairly active and had no trouble driving, in spite of being partially blind in one eye from macular degeneration and having had a quadruple heart bypass. (My three siblings and I all agreed that we each had had our name on one of those clogged arteries…) He began to feed the neighbor’s cat, who kept mostly to his yard to avoid the pit bull in her own; after word got out on the kitty grapevine about the warm meals my Dad would whip up twice a day (half dry cat food, half canned, stirred up with hot water in a special bucket he kept just for the purpose), the strays began arriving until Dad never had less than a dozen cats in his back yard. Because Dad had arthritic knees and seldom ventured out to sit in the screened-in back porch behind the house (which had been my mother’s pride and joy), he opened it up for his cats to use as a shelter from the weather. He took out one screen for their easy egress and left old towels, boxes and blankets in there. The floor was littered with old pans and cat food dishes. He would laugh about how “your Mother” would have a fit if she saw it, but we laughed too, because Dad was enjoying his cats a lot, and we wanted him to have joy in his life.
The rot began to set in when we started noticing stacks of newspapers and magazines piling up in Dad’s living room. They were neatly tied with twine, but they were still piling up. When asked about it, Dad stated that he didn’t get to the recycling center as often as he should — but that he’d take care of them. Oh, okay, made sense — we dismissed it. The back porch was no longer a cat sanctuary; the screens were so torn and the indoor-outdoor carpeting so shredded and filthy, and the porch smelled so terribly of cat urine, that the cats didn’t even shelter in there any more. They still came in there to eat, as that’s where Dad fed them, but they chose to sleep in the gravel beside the house rather than spend time on the porch. Still we dismissed it. Dad couldn’t get around like he used to, after all. He began to pay someone to mow for him, and they did a terrible job, leaving the weeds and grass close to the house to grow up 6 – 7 feet tall, but Dad didn’t complain or find anyone else. We grumbled but figured it was his business. But then Dad’s house began to show signs of real neglect. Though he still kept the dishes done and the carpet occasionally vacuumed, the dust was thick, his junk mail overflowed the desk AND the kitchen table so that he ate his meals on a tiny corner of the breakfast bar, and the place stank. Wallpaper was peeling off the walls, the hall carpeting was torn, and the garage smelled worse even than the estwhile screen porch. My sister, sisters in law, and I all offered at various times to come give the place a good cleaning, but Dad acted offended at the offers…so once again, we dismissed it. Dad began to hobble badly on his arthritic legs, yet he refused to use a cane or talk to his doctor about it. We began talking amongst ourselves, shaking our heads at his stubbornness and wondering if there really was a problem. Dad’s 90th birthday was coming up, and though we kept tabs on him as best we could, we found ourselves reluctant to say anything. After all, this was our DAD!
Finally, after a thankfully minor ER visit brought us all to his house, we siblings agreed that we had to get some of the stuff out of there and get it clean. We pretty much told Dad that he needed to decide what to keep and what to throw out of the magazines and mail (my brother would help him), and that my sister in law and I were coming in to clean. He wasn’t happy, but he agreed. That day spent cleaning was one of the worst days of my life. I drew the short straw and got as my first task the job of cleaning the bathroom off Dad’s bedroom. The dirt and mold/mildew build-up on the formerly-white-now-yellowish-grey shower and sink were not the worst of it, although that was bad enough. The floor and toilet were smeared with urine and feces, where Dad had obviously not made it to the toilet in time…and, worse, had not noticed that he hadn’t cleaned up after himself completely. As I scraped multiple globs of dried shit and scoured brown crusty patches of piss off the floor, I didn’t know whether to cry or throw up. (Although I ended up doing neither, I wanted to do both!) More ominous even than the excrement were big drops of dried blood here and there…what in the world had happened?? My sister in law had had the easier job of cleaning the main bath which Dad rarely used, but some nasty similar surprises awaited her there too. I stayed overnight and cleaned his kitchen, finding poorly-washed dishes and silverware in the cupboards being used as clean, years-old expired food in the cupboards and the fridge/freezer, and layers of grease and dust over all. Dad had given up cooking years since, but I decided I was going to make a nice meal while I was there. I gave up when packages of muffin mix ended up full of bugs and I couldn’t find any food in the whole house that was fit to eat. How long had he been living like this? And how long had we adult children been closing our eyes and allowing it?
We asked him, often, if he was all right, if he needed anything, how he was doing. But he always answered that he was fine…and because he was Dad, we eagerly took him at his word. He was strong, he was mighty, and though everyone but I was taller than he, he was Big. He was the Father. None of us wanted to assume he had become anything different. It doesn’t matter that you’re an adult, yourself, that’s still an awful realization to have…although scraping his ancient dried poop off the floor makes it hard to deny any longer.
We are still struggling with the situation. Dad is still living alone, still refuses to consider assisted living or a stranger in the house, and we go regularly to clean and make sure he has edible food and clean clothes, staying with him when we can. I’m afraid something more drastic will have to be done, and probably sooner rather than later. But how do you tell a man who measures his self-worth in what he’s accomplished that day that he should let someone else do it for him? How in the world do you tell the man who’s always been larger than life to you that he’s human after all, and an old and increasingly helpless one, at that? Please, someone tell me, how do you SAY that to your Dad?