A brief departure from introspection to a discussion of some nuts and bolts. Specifically, for those of you embarking on the journey of caring for an elderly parent — whether or not you are sandwich generation — I thought it might be helpful to catalog some of the gadgets, devices and doohickeys that help make my father’s independence possible. Some of these were carefully considered and do perform the function that my brother and I hoped they would. Some are useful even though we didn’t expect it. And others… well, fails happen.
In no particular order…
Old Backup Hard Drive
We have this stashed by the front door. It’s a refugee from the Rube Goldberg contraption IT setup my father once had. Useless in his iPad world, it makes a great doorstop.
Sony Wireless Headphones
Because my father’s hearing is not the best (and never has been – see The Capital Letters for more on this), he used to blast the TV, with predictable results. These headphones connect to the back of the set and then project wirelessly. Everyone is happier.
“Lifeline” monitoring system
It’s typically assumed that the elderly need a “panic button” (a la, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” My father has one that’s provided by his community. He never, ever wears it. Amazing for someone with such a strong survival instinct.
The Coffee Table
When he moved here 2 ½ years ago, my family and I went to local mega-chain Jordan’s Furniture to furnish his apartment. Literally every single thing we bought was wrong. Here is a really cool coffee table where the top pulls up to reveal storage inside. Totally unpractical. Other misses include the uncomfortable wooden chairs (because now you need a pad – and my father has incontinence issues) without arms (because he can’t stand without using his arms to lift himself), the nice-enough wooden table that he coated with stains and crumbs within 2 weeks and the small table lamps which he can’t operate.
Somehow my dad discovered the pleasures of having a drink here and there. He’d never done this before. This is his go-to, roughly once a day. The apartment is always stocked.
Jack’s Abby Smoke and Dagger
This is for me. Sometimes as a caregiver you need something to get you through your visits. Also notice the cologne next to my beer bottle – my dad uses this to mask his scent when necessary. It somewhat works. Somewhat.
Two-sided covered hamper
When you invest in your parent’s laundry needs, get the biggest hamper you can find and make sure it has a lid. The lid should be easy to open and easy to close so that it stays closed. Enough said there.
Buy more than one. This is the one that lives in my dad’s shower. On a side note: your parent is going to leave things in places and in conditions that you might not. This thing is metal and is always wet. That’s just life. Move on.
One of the great challenges for the elderly is changing batteries. (Another is figuring out how to make the cellphone work – that’s why my father doesn’t have one anymore. And what exactly does he need it for?) One reason the headphones are so great is that they charge on a stand. If you are a product designer and you think that people over 80 might be a target market, make sure that your product recharges. These are for his Apple TV remote; we have another set for his hearing aid.
This empty shelf is where his photo albums used to be. We had them scanned at GoPhoto instead. They’ll take your photo albums and turn them into high quality electronic pictures (you know, the type we now take for granted because there’s always a high resolution camera in your pocket.) Now he can view pictures on his iPad and Apple TV, and share them. In an album, they’re hard to access.
Sometimes he needs a hammer – but most often, it’s what keeps the tension from the network cables from pulling his AppleTV off the shelf. No uni-taskers.
My brother came up with this innovation. Since my father relies on the Internet for pretty much everything, and cable companies can’t distribute equipment that doesn’t need to be reset constantly, it had to be easy to do. More than 2 years in, we moved the cable modem to a shelf he could reach easily and tuned the unit so that the cables and power switch were in front instead of the back. File that under “Why didn’t we think of that earlier?” Caveat: this trick has a lifespan because eventually, an elderly parent won’t remember to how to use this, or won’t listen when you describe it to them. This recently happened and believe me, it sucks.
Obi (Voice over IP) box
Many posts ago (Top Tech Tips for the Sandwich Generation) I wrote about switching to Google Voice and an adapter so that we could use it with a regular phone. This way, we can get a copy of my dad’s voicemails, which occasionally include something from his doctor’s office that someone should respond to. My dad relies on home visits so scheduling them in critical. This is the adapter.
We have it pointed at the front door so that we can see his coming’s and going’s. No, we never just watch this (imagine C-Span without the excitement). But if he is getting into a taxi to meet us somewhere, now we know when he actually left. Also helpful for seeing when the aforementioned home medical visits really happened.
My daughter Lily wrote this schedule on here. I love seeing her handwriting (and flower – she’s always loved flowers) and remember how earnestly she wrote it. She’s always been so eager. Of course, that was 2 years ago because we don’t really use this. Not practical, especially for someone who doesn’t really use his kitchen table that much.
Glade Air Freshener
During the worst of our incontinence challenges, these were lifesavers, especially because my father doesn’t naturally open the windows. Now we use them less as they can be pretty overpowering. Sometimes that’s what you’re going for though.
The picture sort of says it all – it also makes a handy surface for holding your most important stuff. It’s hard to fold and bulky but I think of all my father’s physical possessions, this might be the one that he’s most convinced he couldn’t live without. Even now that he has a scooter, it’s a security blanket for when he is out and about.
This is a new purchase – it’s meant to fix the problem we created by buying the wrong chairs the first time. My father has no power in his legs, so he has to rely on his arms to stand up. Close… but also wrong since the height is not adjustable. Find one that is. Now we have C-clamps on his kitchen table so that he can pull himself up instead of pushing off the table, which is close to breaking.
My father used to invite friends over for coffee, so we brought this up from New Jersey. Then I went to Dunkin and stocked him up so that he could do the same in Massachusetts. That’s the original coffee I bought more than 2 years ago. The jars have never been moved. Literally. I actually tried to remove the ‘decaf’ jar from the counter a few weeks ago and it’s become stuck to the counter somehow, so I couldn’t budge it. When we lose his security deposit someday, this will be why.
Large buttons, high volume, loud ring and easy to use. Perfect. We bought 5 handsets (by his TV chair, on his desk, at the dining table, by his bedside and in the bathroom).
The essential tool for the connected elderly.
Maybe the best thing we ever bought him.
What’s not interesting about this is the toaster itself – it’s that he asked to have it on the same table where he eats. (Note: I know that’s “interesting”, not interesting.)
By the time he used to shuffle across the room from the kitchen, his toast would be cold. So while now there are crumbs in multiple places in the apartment – something else I’ve had to learn to get over – now he’s able to avoid this problem. He’s pretty proud of himself, and sometimes building confidence in your elderly parent is more important than the thing that made them feel that way.
Also notice the Diet Coke stash. If the world ever ends and Diet Coke becomes the currency of the apocalypse, my father is going to be a king.
Everyone has these – we have 3. He loves having them now. I can’t believe he fought me about these at first. When your parent argues with about this, just ignore it and buy these anyway.
Last week I wrote about having to embrace reality — the actual reality, not the one I had tried to create for myself — in buying a motorized scooter for my father. He seems to be enjoying it. It’s a mix of being liberated from being immobile and fulfilled by overcoming logistical challenges. How to open his door, and keep it open, so that he can exit his apartment. How to navigate entering and exiting the elevators. How to handle chance hallway meetings with other scooters. How to get back into his apartment. You get the idea.
For me, the best part of the scooter experience is that it’s over.
That is, when you have an elderly parent who orders something complicated, it is your responsibility to make it work. If you’re lucky, that is — because sometimes it also includes the responsibility to return it later.
My father, who is an Apple TV addict (more on this next week), decided he really wanted to upgrade to the very newest version. Apple decided to make the user interface and remote a lot more sophisticated, which I tried to tell him he didn’t want. He didn’t listen. So, I bought the new version and installed it for him, only to have him decide that he didn’t want it. Which I told him would happen.
That of course made it my responsibility to return it, which smacked right into Apple’s 14 day return policy. A 30 minute chat session later I convinced them to take the unit back, which earned me the right to box it off and drop it off for UPS. As a sandwich generation father, I am not drowning in free time, meaning that throughout the process I felt awash in resentment and frustration.
I thought of this episode during my third trip to get the scooter operational. For the first, I plugged in the charger, which seemed suspiciously quiet. For the second, I unfastened the seat and pulled off the motor cover so that I could attach the battery leads to the battery. Now the charger made a happy humming noise, so I felt pretty confident that the second time was the charm. The following morning, my father informed me that the unit wouldn’t move. Having read the directions, I knew that there was a simple lever he had to release.
But increasingly my father is not willing to listen to directions I give him, or get other people involved, or believe that someone else might have the answer. Instead he decided to send me a never-ending series of emails about how we might troubleshoot the problem. Finally on the third trip I found the lever — all the while ignoring his unhelpful kibitzing about calling the manufacturer and complaining — and released it. He looked at the fully functional scooter for a few seconds. Then, he progressed to move back to the rest of the list of to-do’s that he had compiled for me.
This lengthy narrative, I hope, sets up what I really want to write about: gratitude.
What makes times with my father so frustrating sometimes is that I feel a distinct lack of appreciation. Which, on its face, is pretty absurd. If the measure of success of being a parent or a caregiver were the count of “thank you’s”, we’d all have given up the effort a long time ago. And an act of kindness is cheapened by expecting praise for doing it. If selflessness is its own reward, by definition you can’t be thanked for it.
It is also absurd because recently he actually has been saying thank you. He has started to tell me that I picked a great place for him to live, which a year ago he attribute to luck. Only this weekend, he sent me an email that reads:
“Peterkem this weekend started on the wrong foot. As of today became a super weekend, thanks to you. Million thanks again, I am very proud of you”
Which in turn got me thinking about whether he doesn’t show appreciation, or I don’t absorb it. This happened with my kids’ B’not Mitzvah too. I likely drove them close to not appreciating the event by passive-aggressively demanding appreciation for the event. I looked for signs in their actions that would belie the thanks in their words.
Being a sandwich generation parent means that you get feedback from both sides, both spoken and unspoken. You have to look to the unspoken sometimes to understand what is really happening, whether in a developing child or an adapting parent. This reaction, at some level, is impossible to avoid. That doesn’t mean it’s always right. Sometimes you have to overlook the unspoken so that you really hear what’s actually being said.
I moved to New England in 2003, trading the mild Bay Area climate for April snow. Needless to say, I felt some bitterness about this as I’d fled the Northeast years before to avoid this kind of unnatural condition. In response, I did what many adult males do: deluded myself. Specifically, I pretended that having no solution for removing snow magically would prevent snow from appearing. That didn’t work. I passed a couple of winters shoveling Massachusetts snow the old-fashioned way, which did not put me in a better mood about the situation.
Then Nova turned me onto the idea of a gas-powered snow thrower. Her logic was pretty simple: I couldn’t change the weather by pretending it wasn’t bad, so I needed better equipment. I relented, and I admit it: it was probably the best $800 I ever spent. Firing up its engine requires flicking enough switches and pulling hard enough on a starter cord that I feel like I’ve gotten physical. I get to use a choke switch. Who doesn’t love a good choke switch? And it is marvelously loud. Sure it is effective at throwing snow a long distance, but after the other benefits, I almost don’t care. It has changed the way I look at snow. And since we’ve had some winters where the snow hasn’t stopped, I deserve something that can do that for me.
Here’s what this has to do with being a Sandwich Generation father.
Over the past year, my father’s mobility has declined. It’s a fact. It’s to the point now where he shuffles his feet and not much happens. He has trouble turning. With a walker he can get himself down a hallway, but the clock is ticking on that as well. So about 3 months ago, he asked me to help him buy a motorized scooter to help him get around. Which I resisted. My logic was that once he started using a scooter, he wouldn’t be walking again, which itself would have downstream consequences that couldn’t be good.
I held onto this logic for some time. Like my pre snow-thrower delusion, I felt that I could hold back time a little longer. It’s like trying to wish away blizzards in Massachusetts; you might get lucky for a while, but eventually, the snow emergency is coming. And like that decision, it took someone else to point out that my logic was, in fact, delusional. Actually, this time it took 2 people.
But, in my defense (which is the opening phrase of most indefensible defenses), this is my father we’re talking about. We used to play tennis on the street where I grew up. He helped teach me to swim. He would lift heavy equipment onto his car’s roof as a core part of the way he made his living as a consulting cable TV engineer. I didn’t worship him for these things – we just didn’t have that kind of relationship – but I always knew he was especially strong.
When my mother passed away 5 years ago and I saw her laying there in the hospital, he was the one who kept me from falling over. He was 87. I’ve held onto that as proof that he can defy time, and maybe by extension, that I can too.
Then I thought about what the scooter what mean for him. Right now, he is trapped inside most of the time. With one, he’ll be able to spend a few days outside instead. He deserves to spend more time outside. He gave up his car more than a year ago, and a scooter will be a machine he can control. He deserves more things he can control. And most importantly, he appears to have found a potential girlfriend who lives far away (that is, in a different section of the community where he lives). For all his faults — more on this next time — he deserves to be happy, and I suppose this also means that he deserves a girlfriend.
These are all things that once pointed out to me were so obvious that I wondered what kind of daze I must have been in not to have seen them in the first place.
Do I do this with my children? I like to think I don’t. I don’t pretend that a lack of feminine hygiene products in the house is going to prevent my daughters’ bodies from changing. But then, as with the blind spot I wrote about before, I’m sure I have one here. I look forward to my next discussion on my back porch to discover what it is, and the particular Sandwich Generation delusion about my children that it is hiding.