My dad, Murray, is a chatty, gregarious guy — so I told the dining room manager when she stopped by on Day 1 at his new independent living apartment. This facility uses assigned seating at mealtimes, and I wanted his companions to be lively and stimulating. She placed him at a table with two other men. Both are very pleasant and very quiet; when I visit at lunch, long silences prevail.
Should I encourage my father to ask about switching tables? Residents do that all the time, said a friend whose mother lives in the same facility. The dining room is a big part of the daily socializing. But Dad shrugged off my concerns. “No, it’s fine,” he insisted. I wondered whether he enjoyed his tablemates’ company (they’re all World War II veterans, which helps) or just didn’t want to make waves. So I let it go, thinking this was his decision.
You hear this phrase all the time from people caring for their very elderly parents: “It’s like they’ve become the children, and we’re the parents.” For better or worse, it’s not so.
Our parents are adults. They have values and opinions honed over long lifetimes and make their own judgments, even if they’re not the ones we wish they’d make. We can discuss, argue or cajole, but only rarely (in the case of significant dementia, for instance) can we justify overriding them. There’s no T-shirt that says, “Because I’m the daughter, that’s why.”
That’s my standard spiel, and even now I’ll stand by it, with this proviso: One phase of moving my father into a continuing care community near me does remind me of parenting. It’s not that he needs hands-on help — nobody has to help him bathe or eat — or that he’s as resistant to suggestions as an adolescent might be.
It’s that I find myself constantly debating when to step in and when to back off as he handles this major transition. How much should I trust him, a competent guy who was handling every part of his own life until a few weeks ago, to figure out what’s important to him and act on it? And since this move has yanked him out of his familiar environs and disrupted his routines, how much responsibility do I assume for smoothing the way? It’s a continuing two-step, one that feels familiar.
Recently, when Dad’s hearing aid broke, my role was clear. The audiologist who works with his facility would examine the device, but I had to take it to his office two towns away. Back home in southern New Jersey, where my father had visited the same audiologist for 20 years, he would have known whom to call. Even after he stopped driving last fall, he would’ve pressed a friend into service to drive him over. Here, in a new apartment, he was at sea.
At other junctures, the questions get trickier. Dad relishes playing cards and has been cleaning up at the Saturday night blackjack game in the community room. Why can’t card games happen more than once a week, especially since the volunteer dealer is unavailable some Saturdays? Couldn’t my father organize his own poker game or ask the activities director to help make that happen? Maybe, I’ve mused, I should talk to the activities guy myself.
I haven’t, though. I’ve talked about it with my father, who seems reluctant to raise the issue and says he’s content. The line between being a forceful advocate for your parent and being an intrusive busybody can be difficult to draw.
So I’m thinking I should just pipe down for a while and watch what happens.
For more go to: newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com