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Hi there. It’s been a while. I hope you haven’t been waiting for me this whole time.

Good. Glad to hear it. After all, you have your own family, your own responsibilities, your own life to take care of. And you may have become a bit preoccupied with what’s been going on in the country and the world these last few months. There’s plenty to talk about there. But I’m going to save that for a future post…or twelve.

I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing for the past few months. It has everything to do with parenting, and nothing to do with my kids—except it’s affected them tremendously. It involves seeing to the needs of my own parent—specifically, my father—and getting an education in eldercare in America along the way.

We found suddenly—as so many people do—that my father was no longer capable of living alone. Some signs had probably been there for a while, but we’d missed them. Others he’d hidden, not wanting to lose his independence. But a home accident brought everything into the light, and we discovered that we needed to find a new living and care situation for him, fast. He went first to the hospital, then to a skilled-nursing rehabilitation center for a few weeks, and finally to the assisted-living home we found in a frenzy of frantic searching.

The day-by-day of what happened is too private to him and too lengthy to relate here. But I will share some key points I’ve learned since April:

  • When an elderly parent requires healthcare, you must constantly play the role of advocate. Even centers of good repute sometimes fall back on patterns of care or behavior rather than evaluate each patient individually, and you have to check in with every caregiver to make sure that your parent is getting the care appropriate to her individual situation.
  • You never really know the full story. A parent with any level of cognitive decline for any reason will necessarily have gaps in what he can remember—how that fall happened, how that giant bruise appeared on his leg, what the argument with the neighbor was about. He may tell different stories to different care providers as he tries to work the puzzle, and those providers may or may not confer with each other about the circumstances surrounding your parent’s care. You have to sort it all out and make sure everyone has the best possible information despite what you don’t and may never know.

  • Quality residential eldercare in this country, whether temporary or permanent, is make-your-knees-give-way-and-fall-down-on-the-floor expensive. Even so-so eldercare will drain your parent and/or you dry. As I said to my fourteen-year-old son, “Well, I finally found something more expensive than your future college tuition.” I don’t know what will happen to my father in just a couple of years when his money is gone. I don’t know how people are expected to have this kind of money. I don’t know how we as a society can sanction only providing decent care for people who are fortunate enough to possess, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, especially given that overall, life expectancies have increased over the decades.
  • Whatever your relationship with your parent may have been earlier has a significant impact now. This sounds obvious and simple, but often, it’s neither. My father and I have never been close, and while the effects of advanced age themselves are new, they augment the tensions that have always been there; they don’t replace them. Living together as we did when I was a child is not possible…which brings us back to the earlier point about the stratospheric cost of quality residential care.
  • I said at the top of the post that this had nothing to do with my kids, but that’s not really true. They are affected by all of this in uncountable ways. Some are positive; e.g., aging is part of life, and it’s good for my kids to see that you don’t ignore people when they are older and need help. You take responsibility; you meet their needs. On the other hand, the aforementioned relationship difficulties are right in their faces on a sometimes daily basis; I can shield the kids from some of that, but not all. I’ve watched my kids take on some of my frustration, and I’m not proud of that.
  • Assuming the role of parent to one’s parent sucks. I can’t imagine anyone feels differently about this. Elderly people losing control of their decision-making and their lives hate it. Middle-aged or younger people forced by circumstance to take control of pieces of their parents’ lives hate it. Kids watching their parents and grandparents tussle over whether or not Grandma or Grandpa should still be allowed to drive or cook or live alone hate it. Kids watch this process play out and wonder if this is their future. Yes, kids, it is, and even more so if we, your parents, haven’t made our own arrangements for old age.
  • It shouldn’t be this way. Have you read Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande? I’m not a big reader of self-help books. But after hearing so much praise about this one, I read it last year, and I’m glad I did. If you plan to age, or are related to someone who plans to do so, then it’s worth a read. Old age doesn’t have to be the way we structure it in this country. It could be better, and Gawande explains how.

These are uncharted waters in which I’ve been immersed for these past few months. Uncharted for me, yet forged by so many people before me. Just like the blog tagline says.

Just when you think you’ve got this parenting thing figured out…it changes. But isn’t that always the way?

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