I have to admit that spending time taking care of my father has given me a great deal to think about.
As I sit and face him, and see the similarities between us, I am prone to view myself in his shoes in about 20 years or so.
I should be grateful for his genes. He retired when he was 63 and lived, for the most part, 20 healthy years interrupted by a couple of periods of cancer treatment, first for colon cancer at 65, then prostate cancer at 69.
Although each of those bouts slowed him down a bit, he returned to an active life of hunting, fishing, berry-picking and gardening right up to 84, when a form of leukemia hijacked most of his operating systems and knocked the energy completely out of him.
I feel badly for him now. I try to keep him encouraged at a time when his life consists of little more than getting to a table for meals, then back to the couch or bed to rest or sleep. He’s frustrated with being unable to get outside and do something useful, a pattern he has followed since he was a young child. He’s not the reading or television kind of guy, so there’s little he can do inside that gives him any pleasure.
I try to take him for a ride in the vehicle each day, at least for a change. I show him what I work on around the house and ask his advice more than I have to, but I see an increasing lack of interest in any of it.
I can relate.
I also expect that we share a gene for needing to move on a regular basis. We were both fidgety kids and both active as adults. Had we been born much later, we might even have been viewed and labelled as having a problem with too much energy.
Fortunately, we both found work and hobbies that got us up and out early in the mornings and kept us going until late in the evenings. Although his life’s work was more physical than mine, and I certainly developed a greater pleasure in reading and writing than he did, like him, I find I cannot sit still for more than 15 minutes. After many years, it is both physical and emotional – we need to move.
For him, movement is now difficult and exhausting. He rolls around constantly on the couch or bed, moving his legs regularly to some other position to relieve the anxiety of non-movement, but to lift himself on his feet and actually do something is almost too much. Each day, I see additional frustration and even some resignation in his eyes.
He talks, regularly, about how he might not last to the end of the day, but I never engage him in that line of thought. I continue to push him to do something, play a game of cards or get out in the car or actually take a full nap so he’s not lying around restlessly.
I believe he will turn to me at some point and say he’s had enough, really, and I will tell him it’s okay to let go if he’s ready. With the support of palliative care workers, we’ll make arrangements that will provide him with relief from any symptoms that make him uncomfortable and we’ll gather around him and talk about our own past and his grandchildren’s future.
I hope I will learn something about helping him finish his life with dignity so that I can begin the preparation in my own mind of doing the same, with some luck, about 20 or more healthy years down the road.