When the skilled nursing facility said that Medicare was done paying for my dad’s stay, I knew it was time for Plan B. Plan A would have been that my dad was well enough to go home to live independently, by himself, as he had up until the stroke he had just three months earlier. Plan B was a swirling cloud of ideas that I nurtured day and night for two weeks.
Because I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my husband and my dad lived over an hour away on the family homestead, having him stay in my 100-year-old walk-up was not plausible (although heavily considered). The next best thing was me going home with him.
We agreed that this stay at his home (and my childhood home from ages 10-21) was an “experiment” where we would see how he could manage at home and for us to see if there was any way for him to safely stay alone through the night.
After almost a month (actually, somewhere around week two), it was clear that we needed a new Plan B. This time, I talked with my husband and we decided that us moving into a larger place and having dad move in with us was the best option.
Those other Plan B options included dad moving into a long term care facility (at a cost of roughly $4,000 a month) or him receiving services at home (costing about the same and carried out by strangers). That last option had the added stress, for me, that these caregivers would be coming into his home, unsupervised, and far from me. The unknown was more unbearable than the possible complications of moving in together.
Although I planned for every contingency and need, including setting up a privacy area on the main floor for dad’s commode chair, I didn’t count on the emotional side of adjusting to all of us living together.
It goes without saying that when you blend any three adults into a shared-home situation, there will be adjustments, but there were four curve balls that caught me off-guard.
1. Old wounds die hard.
Awhile back, I finished the remarkable book, “Coping with Your Difficult Older Parent,” by Grace Lebow and Barbara Kane (book review coming soon). The authors deftly explain that parents who are “difficult” in their later years are, typically, that way all of their lives.
That was a relief to learn, in one respect, because it explained why certain hurtful behaviors hadn’t mellowed over the years.
They shared that our elder parents, at this point in life, are not capable of changing very much. We, as the younger and more flexible adults, have a much greater capacity for bending and flexing.
While that understanding gave me some courage, it didn’t lessen the pain of incredibly disrespectful treatment and criticism I was experiencing daily. When I talked with a friend, she could relate to the situation because of her experience with an in-law. Ironically, when faced with abusive treatment carried out by a elderly adult acting as a mean child, it’s tough to not feel like a defensive child yourself.
What surprised me was, after all these years (and a number of coping mechanisms), my father’s words could take me back to the days before I had earned my stripes in life and made my own path as a business owner, widow and reasonably functioning adult.
2. The feeling of responsibility without authority.
When a parent moves into your home and is dependent on you for many things, like meals, mobility and transportation, you can easily slip into the trap of feeling responsible for their state of mind, their happiness and their entertainment. That’s a heavy burden to carry.
When my dad just wanted to sit in a chair, listen to classical music and sleep all afternoon, I felt compelled to suggest activities that he could do to fill his time. But, he wasn’t ready for it, and my suggestions were viewed more as trying to be controlling and pushy.
3. Parenting a parent.
All older parents are unique adults, of course. But, I have learned that, although seniors say that they want to be in control and be independent, my dad really didn’t want to make decisions. I made the mistake of giving him options — chicken or fish for dinner, pay your taxes in one lump sum or monthly payments, get up at 7 am or 8 am.
When, in reality, he didn’t want to make decisions. He really wanted to be told what we wanted and to be seen as an accommodating guest. We wanted to make him feel at home and bent over backwards to try and give him some say in how things went. But, that just caused confusion and friction.
4. Complaints can be an elder parent’s main vocabulary.
I’ve met my share of curmudgeons in my day, but, when you are the caregiver to an elder parent, the complaints can fire faster than a Blue Angels fighter jet. Pow, pow, pow. It’s compounded by the fact that, although I haven’t lived with my dad for 24 years, he knows just how to hit my ejector button. One comment and I’m zooming towards outer space.
So, what have I learned in the first two months of dad living with us?
1. Forgiveness is the path to compassion, sympathy and love. A dear church friend gave a testimony this past Sunday. Her 9-year-old daughter was murdered over 30 years ago and her message is still the same — forgiveness.
Even if past wounds still lurk right under the surface, at times, my love for my father and my duty as his only child give me the courage to feel sympathy for his illness and that he still feels the need to behave this way. If I want to be an effective caregiver, I must forgive and stay focused on the journey at hand.
2. I am not responsible for anyone’s happiness but my own. I can encourage, get help, make suggestions, seek physician input, but I cannot restore my dad’s abilities. I cannot help him heal faster and have a positive attitude. I have to focus on what makes me happy and let my joy be the model for him.
3. Dad wants to make less decisions. At 82, my dad has definite things that he wants to keep under his control. However, for many decisions, he really wants parameters and boundaries just like an adolescent. He thrives best with structure and routine. And, for me as the primary caregiver, I need my sanity that only comes from knowing that everyone in the house is doing their part to make the home run smoothly. Rather than focus on what everyone else wants, I have found it more productive to express what I need and see if everyone can be ok with that.
4. Complaining is a style of communicating. Complaining feels so counterproductive to me, but it seems that complaining is a way of communicating for elders rather than ask for what they want. I’ve gotten better at not taking the complaining personally, but to see it as my dad’s way of expressing himself and, possibly, his dissatisfaction that he couldn’t do something “just right” by, and for, himself.
Now, I typically let a complaint go by without responding. If it truly is an issue that needs addressing, he will be sure to turn up the volume and be heard.
How about you? Do you have a parent living with you or are you considering this new adventure of shared living?
What are your frustrations or strategies to cope? If this living arrangement might be in your future, what are your fears?