So, this is why it takes a village to take care of our parents – it’s impossible for one child to be everything. I have two wonderful sisters, and they both love Dad. Unfortunately, one lives 8,000 feet straight up in the Colorado Rockies, and the other lives in San Diego. For those who have not been following this story, I live about as far away from San Diego as you can get and still be in the continental U.S. Tonight has me wishing we could turn the country into one of those folded-up paper fans, so that, all the sudden, San Diego and the Colorado Rockies were smushed up against Cape Cod.
You see, I’m really good at the administrative crap that’s required to keep Dad alive these days. Tracking the blood pressures, doing the weekly pill allotment, following up with the visiting health aides – this, I know how to do. But what Dad really wants on a day-to-day basis is the happy, feminine smiles and attention of my two sisters. They both know and understand the work I’m doing, and I’m not meaning to cast aspersions in that regard. I know they know how hard I work. It’s just that their voices are what make him smile. I can make Dad smile, too. But, the thing is, I’m so wrapped up in blood pressures and prescriptions that it’s hard for me to just relax. And being around him when he’s all positive thinking about his health, while ordering the clam chowder and the oysters and the panko-coated scallops, makes me just want to reach out and throttle him.
One of the things I do for a living is to attempt to improve the experience of corporate website visitors. Yes, I realize this is an extremely cushy way to make a living. Basically, I put myself into the mindset of the target audience, tool around a website and document all the mis-directed links, off-key messaging and annoying videos that start up when I might just be in my cubicle trying to get a better price for my car insurance. And then I dump all that information into massive spreadsheets. Seriously massive spreadsheets – like, 365 rows by, maybe 8 or 12 columns. Anyway, I’m good at this work because I am, at heart, a pretty empathetic person and I’m able to put myself into the head of a soccer mom looking for computer security software or a middle-aged insurance buyer. So, I get that my constant hocking over fluid intake is not, most likely, improving my father’s quality of life. But the health administrator in me just can’t get past being amazingly annoyed that all my blood-pressure tracking, pill-counting, appointment-setting work could be completely up-ended by overly salty menu choices combined with a lack of interest in drinking more than a quart of fluid per day, coffee, Scotch and single-serving Jello cups included. And that’s a good day.
This is where the village comes in. You see, a lot of nights, I just desert Dad after dinner. We watch the local PBS current-events show, followed by Jeopardy, while we eat our dinner. Then I carry my glass of wine upstairs, collapse on the bedroom chaise and watch whatever BBC drama I might have available via DVD or streaming video. It’s like Dad’s the product, I’m a product manager, and I just need a break from my daily market insecurity. I know how much he would value my presence next to him on the sofa, but the only way I know how to approach the next day of caregiving is to give myself that couple of hours of off time in the evening. If only we could do that magic paper-fan thing, so that, all of a sudden, my sisters would be next to him on the sofa.
This is one of the reasons, in my opinion, that families turn on each other so strongly in these situations. One child sees a need that must be filled, and, in filling that need, that one partial arc of the circle, they see the rest of the circle that has yet to be connected around them. Instead of reaching out or, at least, recognizing and accepting their own inability to stretch their arms around the entire circumference, they begin to feel inadequate. The other siblings, though, might feel they’d be over-stepping by trying to take on responsibilities. Or, maybe that primary anchor gets angry that, while they’re doing the daily grind, a different sibling gets to step in and be the fun kid.
What we all need to realize is that we all play a role, whether it’s bill payer or health-care contact or periodic diet liberator. I now encourage my sisters to call as often as possible, and let them know that if I take that opportunity to take the dog for a walk or just go up to my bedroom and close the door, it’s not because I don’t want to talk with them. “You make Dad happy when you call,” I tell them. And when they’re sitting on the sofa next to him, even if it’s via his Motorola flip-phone, I get to hand responsibility – ever so briefly – over to my sibling village. And I’m every bit as happy as Dad is for that transition of power.