I generally bristle when people compare caregiving for an aging parent to parenting a child. The analogy creates a pretty circle, but it misses a major mark, in my opinion – in the vast majority of cases, except where severe disability is involved, a parent can trust their young one will become more capable and independent over time, so their own job will become easier (physically, at least). The exact opposite is true when taking care of a parent. In just the last few months, I’ve observed Dad becoming just a little bit more frail – if the infection he had last month knocked him down three notches, he’s only gained back two of them.
There definitely are common aspects, though, to the parenting and caregiving experiences, and one I’ve been feeling especially for the last month or so is the effort it can take to wedge myself back into my own life. My daily and weekly schedules are so entwined with my father’s needs that even a dinner out takes advance planning to make sure I’ve got something in the house that Dad can manage on the Foreman grill or with the touch of a single microwave button. And spontaneous travel is pretty much impossible. A recent two-night trip was planned so that I left after dinner on the first night, and I made special arrangements with his new paid driver/companion to take Dad to breakfast the next morning, and then on to his senior center poker game at noon. Neighbors came over the second night and brought dinner for him with them. The next morning, his shower aide came, and I was home just after noon. Setting this up took time to plan logistics, as well as phone calls and an extra day’s pay for the companion. And forcing myself to not think about him alone overnight took an almost physical effort.
Dating – and, yes, almost-52-year-olds do still have an interest in dating – gets even more complicated (as though dating at almost-52 isn’t complicated enough). Dating was the reason for that two-night trip. While it was wonderful to get away to spend time with someone new, it was hard to keep my mind where I was at the moment, and not wandering back across the Sagamore Bridge, to my 89-year-old father sitting alone in the living room, or sleeping alone in the house. In other words, I was having a very tough time making me, not my father, my priority, even in the middle of a romantic 2-night respite. I’m guessing there are some single parents who’d understand this difficulty.
And, like many parents of young ones, I’ve put any redecorating decisions on indefinite hold, and my home’s appearance shows it. I tried to get the place looking as good as I could before my date came to visit a couple days after our really nice 2-day retreat. I dusted and oiled furniture and vacuumed like crazy in the living room to help address cat-allergy concerns. I scrubbed the chipped-Formica kitchen counters and mopped the 45-year-old vinyl-tile floors. To me, the place was looking pretty good. Then the date arrived.
What was my guest really seeing? I’m not a mind reader, so I can’t presume to know the thoughts or life experiences that traveled through the back door. There even may have been an “aha” of recognition, an “I know what this is.” But all I could do after turning from the face at the door back to the kitchen we were standing in was channel Bette Davis: “What a dump.”
So, yet again, I found myself missing from my own life. This house is not how I live when my life is my own to decide. I can find comfort in certain elements – the morning light through the four kitchen windows, say, or the contrast between the bathrooms’ white beadboard wainscoting and pale blue walls. But I now close my eyes to the whole of it, because the saggy, stained sofa, and cracked bathroom grout are beyond my dealing with, when the daily needs and destructions an 89-year-old can raise force my own things-(mostly)-in-their-place desires to the back burner.
Sure, I could face those destructions head on, take a “damn the torpedoes” approach and follow after Dad with a vacuum and ShamWow cloth, and enforce a sitting-while-peeing rule to limit bathroom-floor damage. I could get that new sofa and cover it in plastic, refinish the floors and make Dad wear booties over his shoes. But I think that would force another part of my identity, the guy who’s working his hardest to just remain kind, out of the picture.
Instead, this time of year, which includes so many of the reasons why I moved to this beautiful place, Cape Cod, I do less cleaning and mowing and weeding and organizing than I probably could, and, instead, escape to Nauset Beach. I lay out my blanket, unfold the chair and take in a deep breath of briny astringency. There, maybe two or three blankets over, or diving into the surf, I can almost see myself again, smiling and waving, as if to say – “It’s o.k., take a deep breath, I’ll still be here when your time returns.”