Coping With Unexpected Challenges From My Elderly Parents

We thought Dad was doing errands on Wednesday afternoons... when in fact, my 91-year-old father was visiting a girlfriend in the village. Now I do not have concrete evidence that this was happening. However, my informant was convinced.

In his recent article, "Retirement Crisis: Baby Boomers Near 65 With Retirements In Jeopardy" Dave Carpenter reports:

Starting in January, more than 10,000 baby boomers a day will turn 65, a pattern that will continue for the next 19 years.
For many of us born shortly after World War II, our elderly parents are still alive, with varying degrees of ability to cope with daily life. Medical advances have enabled longer life and with it, a new set of demands for those in a caring role.

Shortly after I posted this article last October, "The Gentle Activist: Lessons from My 91-Year-Old Dad," Dad went into hospital suffering from a bad chest infection. When he returned home, his personality had changed. He said he had had a nervous breakdown.

The background to this was that he had been caring for my mother for five years since she very reluctantly moved with him from their dream retirement home and garden to a smaller apartment, part of a new housing complex for the over 55's. Depressed, she had withdrawn into herself, did not want to see people, did not like cooking on electricity (instead of gas), refused to drive and was generally miserable. She grew increasingly dependent on Dad. He took control.

Following his return from hospital, Dad could no longer cope to the same degree as before. What was more, he reluctantly gave up driving and with that lost what he called his "mobility." This was essentially his freedom to have some breathing space from Mum and possibly an assignation with a friendly person in the village, with whom he could talk and find some comfort.

We were fortunate in finding a caregiver, a Polish angel, in the form of Marta, who was 24/7 caring for another lady nearby. She worked with Mum and Dad in her free time while she found a full time person to replace her. Not only did she keep their home clean and cook like a dream, she brought a breath of fresh air to them, bringing a warm and cheery greeting when she arrived and a happy presence as she worked. An important part of her role as a carer was to offer companionship, enthusiasm and encouragement. We were very blessed with her arrival.

Dad meantime was becoming increasingly disoriented and muddled. He had lost his role as Mum's caregiver and was becoming less able to get around himself. His frustration seemed to be boiling inside. Between the end of October and beginning of December last year, I left France, and went over to stay in the Guest Suite of their housing complex for two stretches of 10 days to assist them in their process of accepting and adjusting to having more help in the home. Dad grew more confused. Mum was at a loss as she saw "her John" behaving in strange ways.

During those times, it was hard for me to focus on any of my normal activities. I let go of some of my commitments, including writing for the Living Page. When I returned home on each occasion, I felt exhausted, not so much from lack of sleep but emotionally drained. As much as I had taken love and humour to them each day, I had not while there given myself the space to grieve for the loss of my Dad as I had known him. Thankfully, a friend back at home encouraged me to let go and cry the sadness I had bottled up.

On each occasion, back home I walked around in a "fog" of my own disorientation. It took me 10 days to feel settled and able to continue my life again. It was only when another friend kindly encouraged me "to continue holding the attitude that it's all perfect and look for ways to respond that are uplifting" that I was able to lift above my emotional fog.

The crisis came to a head over Christmas. December 23rd was their 66th wedding anniversary. When the caregiver went to them that morning, both were in tears. Dad was being verbally abusive to Mum. Over the weekend, when my sister, brother-in-law and a family friend went to take their Christmas presents and celebrate with a meal, Dad was accusing Mum of being supremely selfish, a nasty woman and his wicked wife. He wanted her to go away for two weeks. The caregiver recommended that they be split up.

This was extremely distressing for my sister Diana, brother David and myself. We were not sure that they would ever live together again. How would Mum cope with being sent away from her home? Could Dad even stay at home or perhaps he should go into a care facility? Particularly for Diana and myself, Dad's behaviour threw out our sense of reality. We had known Mum and Dad to be affectionate, loving and respectful with each other. They had been our role model of a happily married couple and parents we love.

Shortly after Christmas, Mum, bemused, was taken reluctantly to a nearby care home. She missed her John and could not understand what had made him so peculiar. She just wanted to go home. Diana and I tried to project into the future what we should be planning for their care. Marta wisely advised us to take one day at a time. I remained cautiously optimistic that they would be able to live together again. There is more to this story which I shall continue in a future article.

Having given pre-retirement seminars for many years, I learned about the 3rd Age as being that time post full-time economic activity in which a person would assume new interests, activities and fulfil the image of a healthy older person enjoying new found free time. Though for many these days, economic activity continues well beyond any official retirement date. The 4th Age is one in which a person becomes less able to take care of themselves, physically, mentally or emotionally, and needs more care. I am not of the view that there is a universal solution for everyone who reaches the 4th Age.

In my consultation practice over more than 30 years, I have observed that people meeting a turn of decade at 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 or 80 years of age can experience self-doubt, a sense of confusion and disorientation. I had never worked with anyone around 90, least of all my Dad. This shaking up can offer a time to discard worn out beliefs and habits, to re-evaluate meaning and purpose for fulfilment and to come to greater peace of mind and well-being, with increased understanding and appetite for life. Whether this will happen for my Dad, I have yet to see.


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