My father was buried last weekend, and I am forcing myself to write about it in hopes that putting my thoughts on paper will not only ease some of my grief, but also help others.
His decline began about three years ago, after the untimely death of my brother—his son—who succumbed to cancer at the age of 50.
Previous blog posts here, as well as my own blog, have been a way I’ve shared my experiences as caregiver to my parents. When the workload got to be too much, I stopped writing on my own blog so that I could give more attention to my parents and attempt to take care of myself as well.
My father had been declining for many months, particularly last year. His dementia caused him to experience Sundowner’s Syndrome, crying fits, hallucinations, become increasingly inactive, and fall repeatedly. Finally, this past June, my father passed out, falling flat on his face and suffering cerebral bleeding. Several weeks in a rehabilitation center failed to build his strength. In the middle of August, his care team recommended around-the-clock care, and I began the painful search for long term care facilities.
Dull headaches and pain in my shoulders told me what I already knew: I hated myself for going against my belief that parents should be cared for at home. How could I do this? Wasn’t there a way I could bring him home?
Finally, I made the painstaking decision that a nursing home was the only realistic alternative. If I brought my father home, I reasoned with myself, it would be only a matter of days (if not hours) before he would have another serious fall, and we would be right back where we started.
Being proficient at searching the internet, I spent hours locating facilities that matched my father’s needs. In my denial, I looked at many facilities that did not match my father’s financial situation and even made a down payment on one. I made dozens of calls, talked with friends and visited more facilities than I can remember. The last few homes I toured nearly made me physically sick—I could never get through a visit to these facilities, much less place my father there.
Then, by what I believe was the grace of God, I was led to a nursing home in a small town 15 minutes away from my home. I was familiar with the signs of mediocre and even poor staff from a stay my mother had in a rehabilitation and nursing facility the previous year, so I watched the aides and nurses carefully. I considered their body language, demeanor and interactions with the residents. At this particular facility, there was no fancy lobby or reception desk, but what I discovered about this home gave me hope. I learned that some of the staff had been there for 20 years or more. On the particular day that I visited, the staff was gathered in one of the halls getting ready for a resident event. They were bubbly, excited and dressed in costumes. I learned that the new activities director had engaged more residents than ever, so they had to move events into a more spacious area. The halls and rooms were clean and bright. If I had to place my father anywhere, I felt this would be the place.
The new normal became visiting my father several times a week. Most often I would take my mother, but sometimes I would make the trip by myself so I could just have one-on-one time with my father (plus it was much easier when I didn’t have to tend to my mother as well). My father loved anything sweet in those last few months, so we made a habit of picking up a small vanilla milkshake at McDonald’s, which my dad would accept with eyes that lit up. If I visited him in the morning, I brought him coffee and a donut from Tim Horton’s.
What I didn’t expect when my father entered the nursing facility was the time I would have with him. I was no longer getting his breakfast, monitoring his medications, taking him to the doctor or being distracted by the housework that needed to be done. I now had time to simply enjoy being with him. I was able to hold his hand, rub his shoulders, tease him gently, and simply be there. What’s more, I was relieved of the overwhelming stress of being responsible for his safety and health. I was able to turn these responsibilities over to professionals—of which I definitely was not. I was able to be a daughter again instead of a cook, housekeeper, nurse, aid and social worker. I enjoyed my father for who he really was—my father, my daddy.
I know not everyone is as lucky as I am to have this experience. For many reasons, some adult children will not have the options I had or be able to find the care that I did. My hope, however, is that every caregiver who reads this will be blessed with enough peace to make their role as rewarding as possible.