I did more clean-out of my dad’s stuff today. This afternoon was entitled “Make the Biro Garage Great Again”, otherwise known as reconfiguring where things were, starting to give some things away, and of course, starting to throw things out. Otherwise our cars will never fit in the garage again.
Right now, I am deconstructing much of what my brother, my family and I spent many years pulling together. Today: files easily thrown away. I am leaving the harder stuff for “Future Peter” to deal with. I’ll let him figure out what to do with the photo frames, stamp collections, postcards from friends long gone, old passports and plane tickets, and the presents my children constructed for him . Back in 2013 when he moved here, they made a beautiful little mirror for him. I sat with them that morning and picked the colors. What should I do with that?
With his Bank of America statements and copies of bills marked “Paid”, thank goodness, it is much easier. They go.
I remember the week that Rob and I spent in New Jersey in April of 2011 where I developed a system for him to get the bills paid. Rob focused on clearing stuff out of my parents’ house and I took all things financial. I sat with my father at what had been my mother’s desk. I demonstrated logging into online bill pay, keeping track of statements versus invoices, assuring cash in the account would cover the bills, identifying bills versus statements versus solicitations. I transferred everything onto credit cards that I could. It was a frantic and awful week — and that system worked for years.
This afternoon, I discarded the bulk of the product of it working for years.
There is more of this that awaits me. I also found a clock today that for the past 3 years sat on top of his bedside table. To find that exact clock took me a few tries. Then the one that I’d purchased broke after 6 months or so, but I didn’t realize for quite some time that the difficulty in setting the time and date was the clock, not me. Somewhere in the boxes in my garage is the other clock that he wanted atop the refrigerator. I remember sourcing that one too.
I wonder sometimes if I am cursed because the deconstruction reminds me of the construction. It is the same as a sandwich generation father; I remember the visits to Plaster Fun Time and the times Sophie and Lily worked all day to create artwork just for me. It makes me happy to have experienced that kind of unconditional love, and haunts me a little at the same time.
Creating those folders was my own version of unconditional love. I knew that I had to throw them out regardless. It is just the nature of things.
As I mentioned in my first post in this series, my father had fallen and broken his hip. Much more on that later. First I want to talk about something I learned when he checked into Leonard Morse Hospital, which is this: many nurses don’t work for the hospitals where you see them.
Her name escapes me now, which I feel a little badly about – but then I suppose if you are a hospital administrator, that’s part of the point. You want them to be as interchangeable as possible. So, let’s call her Carmen. She looked like a Carmen, with dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. Although she was attending to my father in a hospital in Natick, Massachusetts, she was actually a 30-something temp who lived in South Florida and was part of a staffing agency. I was too jacked on adrenaline to ask her which agency, and truth be told, I was still absorbing the fact that a Massachusetts ER nurse would have been transported up for a 4 day shift from Florida.
She wasn’t unhappy about it. In fact, she had requested it because her boyfriend lives in Milton, only a 45 minute drive away. She gets up here every chance she gets. But from hearing her describe it, it is a challenging life. She is paid by the hour; if she’s not staffed somewhere, she’s not earning money. Often she is dropped into ER’s where she doesn’t know anyone and she’s gone before she has the chance to really try. And when she works, she is working. She is not checking social media, or shopping online, or catching up on work-related reading, or texting with her boyfriend. Even in an ER that isn’t that busy, Carmen isn’t walking around. She is running.
I was somewhat flabbergasted by the sheer amount of chasing people down that she had to do. Even in a mostly empty hospital on a Wednesday night, scheduling resources like an X-ray was extraordinarily complicated. Then getting my father up there was hard. Then we had to wait for the result, and of course, she is the only one who has any idea when the orthopedic gods from on high have deigned to gaze at the picture. I imagine her nightly labor is a little like my recurring dream like I am running in molasses, or am trying to move my arms but something I can’t see is pinning them. Carmen must feel like that all the time.
And yet – she was so wonderful with my father. He is 92 and therefore is simultaneously a bit cantankerous while also liking to flirt with and charm younger women. Which for him, is everyone. She did not treat him, as the system would so often over the next couple of months, as an “elderly-male-who-fell-and-probably-has-dementia-and-so-many-other-problems. Every doctor, and I mean every single one who saw him that night, did. Not her. She figured out that because he has a hearing aid, she should talk into that ear. She made sure he was comfortable. She held his hand while she talked to him. She delivered news the instant she could, and was selfless and apologetic when she couldn’t. Mostly, she delivered care. Not medication or testing. Care.
I’m guessing of the 3.1 million registered nurses in the U.S. – 3.1 million! – that hundreds of thousands of them are temps like Carmen, waiting to find out where they are going next. Then when they get there, they are the front line to sick, broken and scared people who are caught in the hospital system and looking for answers and care, genuine care, anywhere they can find it. The same was true for my daughtefsdfgsdfgrs when they were in the hospital with rotovirus just before they turned two; hospital supervision is a sandwich generation problem, for sure.
I wish I could remember Carmen’s name, or that we had a system where Carmens are not commodities. Imagine the care they could deliver if they weren’t running in molasses. But, obstacles or not, I’m glad she was there that night for my father, and for me.
Sometimes as a parent or caregiver, you get to enjoy the personal care task you’re asked to do. Reading a favorite story to your young child; I used to read “Fletcher and the Falling Leaves” to my kids night after night. I never got tired of it. Or, you realize that you have to be the one to do it. When my father ended up in the hospital almost 4 years ago with C-Diff and they wanted him to drink the barium-infused milky nightmare needed to make his bowels show on the x-ray, I drank some with him. It was chalky and sticky and faux-strawberry and all around just awful. But I drank it with him anyway so that he would do it. The universe had placed me in that spot at that exact moment for that exact purpose, and when the universe does that, you have to go along. It is the universe, after all.
And then there are the things that are not like that.
This came to mind the other day at my father’s apartment as I ran down the list of chores he had so thoughtfully prepared for me. The bills, of course. His latest iPad problem. Parceling out medication. Unpacking his Amazon shipments, including the never-ceasing supply of Depends. Changing the battery in his Apple TV remote and/or hearing aids and/or TV remote and/or other TV remote. Then there is my usual list, which includes airing the place out, checking for expired food (especially the food he leaves on the counter), throwing the plastic bags, cracker packages and Sweet N’Lo packets he is hoarding, and examining the state of his bed and other important pieces of furniture to make sure they are clean.
I have come not to mind most of these. Most things I do for my kids also fall into this category, which as a sandwich generation man, is fortunate. Or I am suppressing something, one or the other.
Then there are some chores that I die a little each time I do. To spare needless gory details, I won’t list them all. One is cutting his toenails. It is pretty obvious why I don’t like this one. Another, though, is cleaning his glasses.
I don’t know why this one bothers me so much, but it does. It would be pretty easy for him to do for himself, but he won’t. He has caregivers in and out of his apartment every day, and it would be easy enough for him to ask them. It’s common for elderly parents to cling to their children as the only ones who can do things for them, no matter how small. Especially those who lack an empathy gene. I’m just saying.
This past weekend I stopped to ask him why he insists that I have to be the one to clean his glasses. He stopped for a second to ponder it, and said, “Because you are the master. No one gets them as clean as you do.”
Well, maybe I am.
Then I took a deep breath, took out the Windex, and cleaned his glasses again. Both pairs.
For Yom Kippur every year, I taper off caffeine to avoid withdrawal headaches and irritability. Let’s face it — the day is tough enough already. I do this even though a part of me takes pride in my ability to harness it to keep up the pace of my life. It’s this part that has me start my early pre-workout 5:30am routine with an espresso shot, a device I use to coax myself to emerge from bed on freezing and dark freezing January mornings (and now March ones). The part that knows while water is healthier, coffee is tastier and acts faster. So, after giving in to that part of me most of the year, I need to ease back in the early fall. I switch from all caffeine, to about half-caf, to only a little, finally to almost zero.
The added upside is that caffeine turns out to be a close chemical cousin of Ritalin. So for a short time after the high holidays every year when my system is basically starting from zero, it clarifies my concentration and calms me. No, really.
At some point, I will give up this rite, along with fasting. Like I said, the day is tough enough already. This will be one of the privileges of getting older, I suppose.
For my father, however, abandoning Yom Kippur is not a privilege – it’s a challenge. He always wants to prove that he can do things his way even if they are exactly the opposite of what he should be doing. This DNA sequencing is part of why he is still alive at age 92, after all. So at age 92, he fasted this year. Why wouldn’t he? He is stubborn, my father.
Sometimes though, conventional wisdom actually is right. It was this time. He got weak, fell while reaching for something while getting dressed, bounced off the corner of his bed, crashed into the floor, and fractured his hip.
Some hours later, I was sitting on the couch after attending a break-the-fast party at a friend’s house and scanning my phone for the first time that day. It was about 9:30pm. The rest of my family was upstairs in bed already. By then, my father had been on the floor since 2pm. Although he has a “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” neck pendant that his community provides him, he didn’t wear it. As I said: stubborn. He also has a cord in the bathroom not 10 feet from where he fell that he could have pulled. That didn’t occur to him either.
But he also was too stubborn to just stay there. After 3 excruciating hours on the floor, he managed to crawl the 50 feet over to his desk so that he could reach his iPad to send an email for help. Then, somehow he pulled himself up high enough next to his desk to pull down his iPad and use it to start sending emails to my brother and me letting us know he was on the floor.
Several hours, and a phone call from my brother later, I saw the messages. As I mentioned in an earlier post about technology we’ve deployed for my dad, we have a camera deployed in his apartment that points to the front door. However, we can also see most of the apartment, including the area next to the desk. That was where I saw my father was laying face down when I checked it.
My father lives 15 minutes away in a community where there is plenty of help. I called the front desk there to let them know what had happened and to ask them to send someone upstairs. They did so right away, which is yet another reminder of why I’ve been so happy that my father doesn’t live in the house he insisted on staying in for years after my mother died. Sometimes I have anxiety dreams about trying to manage everything for him, but he still lives there.
In this case though, it was a question of just driving over. By the time I arrived, the front desk had called an ambulance. I would describe the condition he was in when I walked in his front door, but the readership here is small enough and I’m not trying to scare more of you off. Suffice it to say that when an incontinent man falls while getting dressed and then crawls across the floor in extreme pain, it is not pretty. He looked up at me and said, “Peter, I need your help getting up.” I gently let him know that this was not going to happen and that an ambulance was on its way. It was obvious that he had a broken bone. The only question was how many, and how seriously.
A short time later, the Framingham firefighters and an ambulance arrived. (Brief rant: why do the firefighters need to come? There is no fire. The EMTs are trained paramedics. It feels like marketing.) Almost instantly my father ceased existing a human being with a story, a background and a soul. Instead he became “elderly-male-who-fell-and-probably-has-dementia-and-so-many-other-problems.” It happened almost immediately. As soon as the EMTs tried to ask him questions to gauge his mental acuity, but asked them into the ear where he doesn’t hear well, I knew what I would be spending the rest of my night, and probably October at least, guarding against. He had been transformed.
I too had been transformed. Usually I am a sandwich generation father and son, straddling the fine line between caring for an elderly parent and trying to be the best parent for my children I can be. Sometimes though, I need to be one or the other. This was one of those moments.
As they wheeled him out, I packed the belongings I thought he would need. iPad. Charger. Worn-out Sony headphones he likes so much. Clean pajamas. His favorite slippers (in hospitals you get those anti-slippery socks). Both pairs of glasses. Hearing aid and batteries. A few pictures. Then I followed the EMTs out, and to the hospital. Luckily, I’d had my first post Yom Kippur cup of coffee and was fueled up for a long night.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, my father fell and broke his hip back in October, and it was not an easy experience for him. Or, by extension, for me. Or, by extension as I am a Sandwich Generation father, for my family.
At times, it felt like too much was happening too quickly, too many thoughts entering my mind, and I couldn’t really keep up. It was series of intense times followed by waiting where I still couldn’t quiet my mind enough to write. Adrenaline and boredom. Highs and lows. Nervous energy alternated with a few drinks, occasionally more. I lost the ability to when I woke at 3am — middle-aged man problems, what can I say? — to fall asleep again. Morning after morning at 5:00am I would look at the clock and think about how I “only” had 90 minutes before I had to get up. I should have stopped looking at the clock — but I couldn’t. Then one morning I stood in front of the shower, thinking about whether I should get ready for work or do a short workout, and changed my mind 3 times.
I’m going to write a series of posts about this experience. Partially, maybe mostly, it is for me. Despite what WordPress tells me about my audience size, I suspect it’s a trick to keep people writing. I realize it’s actually quite a small circle of people, and that’s fine. I do this because I need to. I think one reason I had trouble sleeping, drank and ate more, and was particularly jittery, is that I fell out of the practice of writing.
This was my second time going through a hospitalization followed by rehab. Because it was the second time, I had expectations and knew what to look for. Maybe that threw me off more. I remember how it worked out last time and was results-focused rather process-focused. Or because the experience wasn’t new, I thought I would be able to absorb more psychological stimuli without being overwhelmed. I was wrong.
I have a table of contents built in my head and plan to write once a week. I have a narrative together and for me, this is the hard part without which I have trouble even starting. It’s probably going to be a few months at least, so for the hardy few of you who actually follow this, settle in. Also: I’ll publish posts not related to this story mid-week; I have a few of these saved up. My father is back home from having his hip replaced and his heart “paced”, and my kids continue to turn into teenage girls, so there is no shortage of sandwich generation moments that are good stories.
See you next week.
Ever wondered what an elderly person gets in the mail? I spend about 20 minutes a week going through my dad’s stuff, most of it junk. I never stopped until this past weekend to consider what actually is in there. Sorting the mail for both my parent, and occasionally for my kids, is part of the role of being a Sandwich Generation man.
The elderly have a special mix of mail that tells you a lot about American society, actually. So what kind of country are we? We are the kind of country that sends our oldest members:
- multiple envelopes from coupon aggregators (in his case, Valpak)
- statements and bills from supplemental health insurance and supplemental prescription drug benefits programs
- American Express solicitations (even though my father has a card)
- Invitations from social services agencies, sometimes in multiple languages (in his case, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, English and Russian respectively)
- Envelopes that say “Information about your plan’s home delivery pharmacy – Important Plan Information” – which åre solicitations to subscribe to new costly services
- Envelopes that say “Urgent information about your health plan’s benefits – Your Response is Required” – which is where they try to figure out if the bills they reluctantly paid can be pinned on another insurance company because of some kind of an accident
- Vacation solicitations from cruiselines
- Carter’s catalogs
- Local restaurant menus (The Sub-way and Pizza)
- Citi credit card solicitations – these guys send these to everyone
- More American Express solicitations
- Solicitations to take part in mailed surveys
- Coupons set designed to look like a newspapers
- GEICO solicitations that are sent to a loved one (in this case, my brother)
- Statements for services that were long ago canceled but I guess I didn’t cancel in triplicate. In his case, NJ EzPass.
- Yet another cruise line solicitation, this time from Norwegian Cruise Lines
- Notifications from companies like Remedy Partners, which is a third party that was the overall care manager during his hospital stay that they got money from Medicare for that. Which based on the level of coordination I saw, should be coming to me instead.
- Coupons and now hiring notifications from Domino’s Pizza / Now Hiring. That would be interesting
- A second Globe Direct mailing with home-related offers and coupons
- Official notifications of Medicare from what they approved and denied over the past 3 months. It’s actually somewhat useful, which as you can see, really surprises me.
Plus, my father received a jury summons.
This one should be interesting! I’m sure there’s an exclusion for people who can’t quite get out of the house. I’ll work on that for him before more mail comes in…
At the risk of alienating more than a few readers, I have a disclosure to make: I am a huge country music fan. It’s true. It’s been almost 25 years now since someone played Mary Chapin Carpenter (who went to my high school, actually) for me and I was hooked.
One of my recent “songs on repeat” is from a band called Old Dominion. It’s called “A Song for Another Time”. It’s about a relationship which is great, but is going to end, and soon. The idea is that we should enjoy it now, and feel the sadness later. This is a common country music theme, I know. To make the cliche worse, as if it could get worse, the descriptions of how amazing things are, and how sad they will be, are just the titles of songs strung together. Brown-Eyed Girl. Sweet Caroline. Always on My Mind. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. You get the idea. Trust me: no one will be writing articles about this tune 50 years from now about how it changed music.
But I am hooked on this song anyway. It captures something in the way that only music can. Like many of you, I have lived almost this exact scenario in a relationship before. (As an aside — I could do a whole other blog on those moments in relationships, of all types, when you know it’s all going to change, either one way or the other. Comes down to only a few and they always stick with you.) And as a Sandwich Generation father, there are moments when I feel like I am living it now.
My daughters just turned 13 in June. I’ve been told by countless parents that the journey from here to 16 is fraught with peril. Occasionally I can see that future, but not today. Today my kids still think I am funny and smart, and mostly like being around me. We have fun together. They make just about anything I’m doing more fun. They still have some innocence and at the same time show flashes of wisdom that make me shake my head at how amazing they are going to be as women.
After the first day of school, I took Sophie to Five Guys and we just hung out and ate dinner together and talked about our days. It was simple, and sweet, and lovely.
My father too is in one of these phases where I recognize that things are about as good as they are going to get. There are more bad days than there used to be and some things that I do for him make me a die a little every time. I wish I didn’t feel that way, but I do. And yet I know the glass is still half full. Many blogs about caregiving are written by women, mostly older than I am, who are caring for very sick parents who need help with the basics, who can’t remember who they are, or are fighting terrible diseases. Much of my time as a Sandwich Generation son is spent just talking, or fixing modest technical issues with his iPad. Last Sunday afternoon we hung out and watched the US Open final, like we have for almost 40 years now. It makes me feel like a kid again and so happy that I still have my father. It was simple, and sweet, and lovely.
In the back of my mind, I know different days are ahead. The moments will come in those relationships when I know they are going to change. As the lyrics go, though – that’s a song for another time.
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.
When I arrive on Sunday mornings to my father’s place, he’s usually sitting in his old chair in front of his heavy, worn wooden desk. It’s old enough that the drawers either droop or don’t open without herculean efforts. A small spiral notebook sits on the right side, his iPad in the front and the inbound mail on the left. The new in the middle, the old on the right and left.
This notebook contains the list of my tasks he’s stored up over the course of the week for me to address during our regular sessions. It’s a consistent set of technical issues, household annoyances, financial questions, and the occasional personal care request. Apparently one core skill you need as a Sandwich Generation son is the ability to give pedicures. Always these tasks are written in capital letters. My father has always preferred capital letters.
In his office in my childhood home, the one where the desk used to live, he mounted a posterboard on his wall to show upcoming projects. He was a one-man consulting engineer who would pile himself and his sophisticated electronic equipment into a faux-wood paneled station wagon and trudge off to faraway cities. He’d test television signal levels to help design or improve antenna or satellite towers; two of then loom to my right when I drive down Route 9 toward Newton.
The posters hung in landscape position with 3 columns and maybe 10 or so rows. He’d show the date, the city, and a few other tidbits about the job. All written in capital letters. I remember like it was on the wall of my house today. Over the years, those posters piled up behind him filing cabinets – those stayed behind when he left the house 2 ½ years ago – like a history of his career, his marriage, the life he created for my brother and me of a father on the road.
I’m remembering this now because last weekend an inbound direct mail piece from Carnival Cruises prompted me to suggest that Bermuda would be close enough to visit if he wanted. He shook his head and started recounting the many reasons he couldn’t. One piece of evidence he offered up about his decline was the trembling in his hands. And t’s true – they do tremble a little. Then he held up the notebook and said, “See – I can only write in capital letters.”
That’s true now – but it was sort of true then. Same for the unusual way he stands up, using his arms to lift himself up instead of his legs. He’s always done this and it drove my mother to distraction. Now he notices it. He’s never had good hearing. For years it was because “you all mumble!” Now he recognizes it.
So as middle age has overtaken me, I too have started to look for my signs of my own physical decline. When you look, they are everywhere. My vision up close isn’t the best anymore. On many nights, my energy runs out long before I think it used to. My powers of concentration are deteriorating. And my handwriting has become totally illegible. Or at least, that’s what I thought until the journals that I kept when I was 16 disabused me of this notion.
In the moment in front of the familiar old desk, I resisted the urge to talk my father out of his sentiment. That would have been unrealistic; he is almost 92 after all, and of course he’s declining physically. Or put another way, some of the tendencies that have been there all along are more pronounced in him. And in me.
His letters are in caps, while in my notebooks – new and old – they are in a weird middle area between caps and lower case. That’s not new though. It was there all along.