I awoke this morning to a text from my sister-in-law. Apparently my father didn’t recognize her this morning.
Dad has known and loved Colette for about thirty years and she comes to my parents’ home regularly to manage their care. (She’s an RN, very smart, and much more organized than the rest of us.) This moment marks a sad milestone in one of many marking Dad’s decline. I confess I’m a little worried he might not recognize me when I come home for a visit in one month’s time.
I told my boss the other day that I needed to go home to visit my parents. I mentioned that Dad was going to be going into a nursing home soon and as I said this, I teared up. Tshering, a Buddhist, wisely said, “That’s the way of things. You and I will go into a nursing home, too, someday.” It was such a serene and matter-of-fact way of looking at it – completely lacking all the drama that I imbue the situation with.
I have been filled with fear and sadness about this impending move of my father from their home of almost forty years to a nursing home. I am afraid he, who is already disoriented due to the insidiousness of Alzheimer’s, will be even moreso in a foreign environment with no one around that he recognizes. Of course we will all visit as much as we can, but for large portions of the day he will, no doubt, feel very much alone and probably even more confused than usual. I’m afraid he will decline with more rapidity than I can bear to watch.
This decision to move him into a home has been a difficult one – and not necessarily universally embraced. Some of us are worried about Mom who, even with the assistance and intervention of a team of fabulous caregivers and several children, has trouble coping with Dad almost 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Her patience has been greatly taxed. In addition, it is increasingly difficult for the caregivers to adequately attend to the needs of both parents simultaneously. Dad needs to be monitored fairly constantly not only because he is an “escape risk” but because he no longer remembers where the bathroom is and sometimes, due to his poor addled brain, will go to relieve himself in inappropriate places. Meanwhile, Mom needs emotional attention as well as support with things like bathing. And then, of course, there are meals to be made, laundry to do, dishes to be done. Bless these caregivers. They do an absolutely amazing job.
My one sister and I have been slower to board the nursing home bandwagon. Dad has been an exemplary father. It hurts to think we cannot find a way to continue to care for him in his own home. But in addition to all the above, we are running out of money. Even after a lifetime of saving and a couple of wise investments, their money is disappearing fast. In addition to the costs of heating fuel, taxes, food, medication, insurance, electricity, and phone, we have caregivers twenty-four hours a day. Caring for elderly people is not cheap. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to care for our elders. My siblings and I all do what we can - each of us has helped with day-to-day care, health care, finances, moral support, and a myriad other tasks, but with jobs, families, homes, and limited income ourselves, there do not seem to be too many options left.
This morning I went for a walk through the woods. At one point I came upon a fallen aspen tree. Somehow it had become completely severed from its roots; I could see the jagged edge at its base where once its roots had been. And yet it laid there on the ground in all its white-trunked, golden-leafed splendor. Even without obvious nourishment coming from the earth, it was having a last gasp of life and beauty.
I wondered how long it would be before the beautiful golden leaves turned brown and crinkly and fell from the branches. And then I thought of how those leaves would decay into beautiful rich-smelling humus, and then the branches, and finally the trunk itself. And that sweet new earth would then nourish the seeds of other trees. New life would grow from the decayed matter of this tree. This tree would soon die, but the cycle of life would continue.
Dad’s body will eventually return to the earth, too. Possibly sooner than this daughter is ready for. But his spirit will live on. And the seeds he has planted in his life will grow; they will mature, branch out, bear fruit, and spread their own seed. Life will continue. Form will change, but life will continue. This is the way of the world.
Thank you, dear Tshering and Aspen, for helping me to see what I needed to see.