'You're so lucky." "That's so unusual." "I've never heard of that happening." These are just some of the reactions I get when I tell others what it's like to be one of my dad's many caregivers.
Dad, an 83-year-old Korean War veteran, a native Bostonian from an Irish-American family with 10 children, and a retired steamfitter, lives alone in his two-bedroom apartment, in an over-55 complex in Patchogue. Our mom, Mary, his beloved bride of 58 years, passed away in March, and life hasn't been quite the same.
Dad has many health issues and walks with a four-footed cane for outings and Mom's walker for his every-other-day walks of 30 minutes around the apartment complex. Unable to cook for himself, his three daughters and two sons provide evening meals. Every fifth Saturday/Sunday and one designated weeknight is noted on Dad's calendar. I'm Monday.
Monday and Friday mornings, a home health care aide arrives for 2½ hours of preparing his breakfast and lunch, bathing Dad and doing light housekeeping. More than that, she provides companionship. Their 50-year age difference falls away as my dad shares lifetime anecdotes with her and advises her on boyfriend and teenage son matters. She helps him carefully get in and out of the shower, powders him up and leaves a note in the composition book on the dinette table, detailing that "Tom had a good morning," "we're out of bananas" and that he took his meds.
Dad, a devout Catholic who calls himself "an 8 o'clock sinner," is taken on Tuesday by his retired daughter and Thursday mornings by his retired son-in-law to 8 a.m. Mass, followed by the rosary and then breakfast at a local luncheonette. Of course, we can't forget about Sunday morning Mass and breakfast out! For that, there is a rotation list of grandsons and sons-in-law. Each family member's lucky morning with Tom comes up once every seven weeks.
Yes, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, he fends for himself, knowing that "you'll never go hungry with half a loaf of bread," one of Dad's many, many aphorisms. The bread must be raisin swirl, best accompanied by a cup of steaming hot tea.
Since Mom took care of all the paperwork, medications, doctors appointments and social events, Dad needs to rely on his family, now. This, too, is shared. I am the oldest daughter and the only one retired, so I have the time for his appointments, setting up the pillboxes, paying the bills and other general paperwork. My two sisters alternate weeks of taking his laundry to their place to do, keeping him looking as spiffy as Mom once did. They also keep tabs on changing seasonal clothes and bedding, entertainment and nutritional advice. No, Dad, Mallomars and a cup of tea may not constitute lunch.
Dad's two sons are atypical of the "all the work falls on the daughters" mentality. For two years before Mom's passing, the five of us each took a week to check on them, do laundry and make sure groceries and meals were in order. Periodically, we would have a sibling meeting. At that point, my sister, a registered nurse, asked each of us to talk about our strengths and how we thought we could best support our aging parents. The two sons volunteered for OTB visits, barbershops and making sure there was fresh bottled water in the fridge, in addition to any heavy cleaning jobs.
While my parents' living into their 80s has been a blessing, it has been particularly comforting to know that Ryan's words were heard. Ryan, a journalist, is the oldest of Dad's 11 grandchildren. When he eulogized his grandmother at the funeral home earlier this year, he implored the entire family to continue his grandmother's legacy of love and family by taking care of Papa. I am so proud that the next generation is right there, doing its part.
For my Dad's part, he is easy to be around. While forgetful, and hearing-impaired, and no longer able to drive, he is thankful for everything and loves putting a smile on the face of others. He is known to wear caps with emblazoned brims that read, "In dog years, I'm dead," "Korean War Veteran," "Kilimanjaro" and "Roma." The last two were gifts from his granddaughters. While I know he misses "Mum" dearly, I also know that he is as grateful to us, as we are to him, for the blessing of each other.
And though the holidays will be difficult, we have Dad as an example of moving forward with courage and love. For it truly takes a village to care for an aging parent. I know I speak for Dad's children, in-laws, grandchildren and other family members and friends when I say that, in this season of thanksgiving, we are truly blessed.
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