As we are approaching retirement age, our children are generally no longer dependant on us and we have if we are fortunate enough to have made plans for this time of our lives to have freedom to indulge in our own pursuits.
This time can be short lived for many reasons, some of us for one reason or another find ourselves as caring for grandchildren as we help out our children. Others find ourselves as caring for our parents as well.
I am writing of my experience of caring 24/7 for my father in law for the last year of his life. I hope my journey is of some help to others.
My husband was an only child and his mother had passed on before we met. My father in law was one of the sweetest old gentlemen one could ever have the pleasure to meet. He was a very proud and independent old man. He was the youngest of eight children, born in 1918.
After high school, he served in the Navy during WWII. He was hard working and like many of his generation life was not easy. He and his wife only had one child late in life and she died when their grandson (my husband) was an infant. Her husband had left her before she knew that she was pregnant so when she died, they adopted their grandson and raised him in a loving home.
They sacrificed their retirement plans to do so.
Pop took care of his wife by himself, when she became ill and did so with such love and care. When Pop had a heart attack he drove himself to the hospital! He had stents inserted into his heart; this was the first time he had ever been admitted to hospital.
He was living in a two bedroom apartment and was still driving himself and taking good care of himself until he wrecked his car in a collision when he was 85 years of age. He was most indignant that he was told that he was at fault and he was not permitted to retain his driver’s licence. It was a relief to us because he had several near misses. We lived in a small town and everyone knew him and we would be told of his lacking in driving skills! He had developed sleep apnea and this is perhaps the cause of the collision.
He had a series of small strokes and had falls and had several short stays in hospital. There were many times we did not think he would be with us for much longer, but he would bounce back to our delight and that of his grandchildren. The last time we were told he could not live alone and would need to be admitted to the Nursing Home. This was a devastating blow to him. He was slowly developing dementia. He never wanted to have to go to the Nursing Home and I don’t blame him, it was built opposite the cemetery!
I used to visit him several times each day and come home once he was in bed.
My husband worked all night shifts so he would call in on his way to and from work. In the beginning we could leave him alone for a few hours at a time. For the last year of his life, I was his primary care giver. I moved into his spare room for the last year of his life. Mostly at first it was to ensure his safety, he had gone off walking with his walking frame for little walks and had fallen a few times. Living in a small town has the advantage of community mindedness. One time I had a phone call that he was at the bank withdrawing a large sum of money.
So he could retain some independence, we bought him a mobility shop rider scooter. This gave him such pleasure, he could still visit his friends and the stores. I was always with him.
Because he had served in the Navy he was entitled to some assistance from Veterans Affairs. Our family GP assisted me in getting this help. They were wonderful, and the American Legion also had equipment to assist me in his care. He was able to obtain financial supplement from the VA and this was almost as much as his self funded retirement payments.
This enabled us to be able to hire private nurses to come and stay so I could have some time off occasionally. During our long winters I began scrapbooking with a box of old photographs and recorded his stories that he could tell me about the photographs. This was wonderful as it kept his mind working. I gained a lot of information about his life that my husband was unaware of. It is amazing how much joy going through old photographs can bring and the memories that they trigger.
At first, I made his scrapbook. Then I made one of his wife. Then I made one of his daughter, then made one with photographs of my husband. There were so many hours that went into creating these.
As his 90th birthday was drawing near, I discovered he had never had a birthday party! So I was able to secure the Senior Centre, a building in our town where senior citizens went every weekday for lunch. There were home delivered meals, to people who were not able to get to the centre. The local high school seniors delivered the meals during their lunch break as a wonderful community service. Pop had been attending there for many years and this was where all of his friends met for lunch and socialised.
I booked it for a Saturday afternoon and having gone through his address book I was able to invite many to come and call in for refreshments. The scrap books were very well received, especially by relatives who had come great distance to attend.
For the year before I moved into his apartment, I was wearing myself out, walking from home to check on him several times a day, as his abilities waned I took on the tasks. It was fine until winter, trudging through the snow was not my idea of a good time, however it was only a few blocks and kept me in shape!
It was funny he would become objectionable towards my husband, but was very agreeable for me!
He had hearing loss and with my Australian accent, he found me hard to understand at times so I overcame this by using a little white board to communicate. During the war, he was stationed out in California and so when I would buy pineapple, and avocado he would often say, “I had this when I was out in California”.
I had some very funny experiences as well. He never drank alcohol and neither did we but there was restaurant and a bar in our town and occasionally we would have lunch in a booths for the bar. To him that was like being naughty!
We had nurses come to shower him and they often had a struggle as he did not like being disturbed from watching Animal Planet! One nurse he became a little flirtatious with. There were times he did not know who I was or what I was doing there. At other times he would tell me about the nice girl that “lived beyond that door” and what a good cook she was! That made me feel good! He would ask me why I was so good to him and cry when he had an ‘oops’ toilet moment and I had to clean him up.
He was very fussy about how he dressed and my husband said he would never wear elastic waist pants. So one day after a toilet clean up, I asked him to try on a pair of my sweat pants, that it might be easier for him to manage than buttons belts and zippers. Well he thought they were wonderful! I told him we could get him some. He laughed and said, “here I am wearing your draws!”
Then came the time when he needed incontinence aids. I bought some and when there was an ad on TV for them I drew his attention to them and brought them out! Well they were a big success, he said to me “so this is the new thing is it?” So he wore his pull ups and was able to go out and leaks were hidden.
Everyone who came to visit had to go for a spin in his “buggy” and one day he was racing the little grandchildren of his neighbour on the sidewalk!
At his birthday party he had the time of his life and afterwards he was like a little kid popping all of the balloons! He refused to use a wheelchair. I had to put bed rails up as he was getting out of bed and I was concerned for his safety as he was becoming frail. I bought a baby monitor and so I could hear him when he was moving about, etc.
On his 91st birthday he had a massive stroke and a week later was admitted to hospice and he passed a few hours later with us with him.
Caring for him was rather exhausting at times. Especially the last week, when my husband was in denial that he was not going to bounce back. I could not lift him or do anything much with him. I had a hoist but when he was not able to roll or anything it was very hard keeping him clean. I had a hospital type bed for him that I could raise up so I did not have to bend over to attend to him. I had a friend I called one to come help me at times.
In our community, people were very helpful and kind. Friends would come and stay with him if I had to go to an appointment for myself. I never drove in USA as I was able to walk everywhere in our town and I never wanted to be driving on the right/wrong side of the road.
Taking care of someone like this is very hard work and physically and emotionally exhausting, but it is also rewarding, in that I felt it an honour to be able to do what I did for this sweet old man who had always been the one giving. He could have whatever he felt like having to eat, and at any time. He never had to wait for a nursing staff to get the time to come and clean him, it was done immediately! I would do it again in a heartbeat!
Something that we all need to do regardless of age is have an enduring power of attorney and to have an advanced healthcare directive and to have all of these things in order. This way your wishes can be carried out and your children do not have the added stress of wondering what to do about such at an already stressful time. Have that “talk” with your parents and children. We need to live well and can also die well.