Yes, it’s that time of year. Thermostat wars have begun.
Some look to Labor Day and its back-to-school deadline to mark the end of summer and beginning of fall. Others are more literal and exacting, using astronomical data to pinpoint that moment sometime between Sept. 21 and 22, when daylight is 12 hours across the globe. In my house, though, I know fall has begun on the day Dad starts grumbling about the temperature in the house.
I suppose it happens in other parts of the planet, but it seems here in New England there is a single day in late August or early September when something subtle yet unmistakable shifts in the air. Whether it’s a humidity drop or wind shift or, even, a new pollen hitting the sinuses, you can recognize that the seasonal change has begun. It may be 72 degrees and brightly sunny, but, yet, it’s there. And on that day – which, again, can be a glorious beach-day candidate – Dad starts eying the thermostat.
This year, that day happened about a week and a half ago. As usual, I was in shorts and a polo shirt, barefoot. By the end of the day, Dad was in long pants, with a t-shirt under his long-sleeved polo. When I came home after being out, he’d added a windbreaker to the outfit. It was, maybe, Sept. 10. The thermostat showed the house interior temperature to be hanging somewhere between 68 and 70 degrees.
“Are you really that cold, Dad?”
“I’m fine with the windbreaker.”
“Dad, it’s, like, 70 degrees in here”
“So, you’re not turning on the furnace?”
“Dad, it’s 70 degrees. I’m not cranking up the furnace if it’s 70 degrees inside.”
“Alright, I guess I’ll just put on a sweater, then.”
I shrugged, rolled my eyes and padded my bare feet up the stairs to my room. But the image of that little old man, bundled into three layers of clothes, arms wrapped around himself for added heat, ate at me. I padded back down. He’d added a baseball cap to the ensemble – you know you lose most of your body heat through the top of your head, right?
“Dad, do you want me to bring the space heater up?”
“No, I’ll get by.”
I’ve made it a point to try to not respond to guilt or drama, so I just said, “All you have to do is ask, I’m happy to get it,” and returned up the stairs.
The next morning, before he got up, I hauled the space heater – one of those electric, oil-filled radiators on casters – up from the basement and turned it on near his seat on the sofa. It’s been operating 10-12 hours a day since, whenever he’s been sitting in the living room. The Woolrich shirt my sister gave him for Christmas last year has become his favorite piece of clothing (though, thankfully, he’s getting by without the windbreaker or ball cap inside). And the temperature has yet to drop below 65 in the house, at least when he’s not in bed.
The scenario is pretty funny from a Grumpy Old Men/Odd Couple point of view. But, like many such sitcom-worthy situations in our life together, it carries with it a more bittersweet undertone. In some ways, Cape Cod has one of the worst possible climates for older folks. Winters don’t get terribly cold from a Midwestern perspective, and we don’t get anywhere near the snow the folks in western Massachusetts can see, but there’s a dampness here from mid-October to early May that can take a chill straight to your bones – and lungs. And then there are the nor’easters, which can knock out the power for several days at a time. That’s what happened the November before Dad moved out, when nighttime temps were down into the mid- to upper-30s. I got through that event in candlelight, wrapped in layers of shirts and sweaters. I’d have to move Dad to a hotel for the duration should something like that occur again.
This summer’s spell of heat and humidity was like a visit from an old St. Louis friend for Dad. The rest of us sweltered and moaned, but he was happy to exercise the gills most St. Louisans have in place of lungs, as the humidity level hovered in the upper 80 percent range for three weeks or more. But the cooler temperatures coming our way will soon just beat that energy out of him.
I’m planning some improvements over the next six weeks that should help keep the house, itself, more comfortable. New thermal-pane windows in the basement, a whole-house air-sealing project courtesy of stimulus funds and utility incentives, along with sealing and insulating ductwork in the basement and adding some insulation to the second floor. It has seemed in the past as though the house started feeling cold as soon as the furnace fan shut off, and these efforts should lessen the impact of that kind of draftiness.
However, he still has to get around outside if he’s going to maintain even the somewhat reduced energy level he has these days. Late fall and winter create perfect conditions for a nasty cycle to kick in for him. The reduced daylight and greater energy required just get off his butt means he starts going to bed earlier and sleeping later, a pattern that’s already beginning – he’s had three or four 11-hour sleeps in the last week or so. More time on the back means more time for fluid to begin accumulating around his heart and lungs, which leads to harder breathing and even less energy, and more time in bed. Throw in the energy-sapping impact added fluid can have on his impaired kidneys and the fact that he refuses flu or pneumonia shots, and you’ve got the ingredients for even more serious problems.
In the meantime, I’ve got a call into the furnace-repair guy – I tried firing the furnace up a couple days ago while Dad was out and the blasted thing refused to turn on. It could be the air sensor I had replace a couple years ago when the furnace was still under warranty has crapped out. At least, that would be a good metaphor for the current situation – one sniff of autumn and the furnace has refused to wake itself up.