My First Caregiver Experience
My father lived to be 89. Long before his last illness, he and I had a discussion about his healthcare directive, partly inspired by our work at AgingParents.com. We talk with clients about advance healthcare planning, and I had to practice what I was preaching. Dad told me he had put both my sister and me on the paper as his agents.
I told him that he well knew how emotional and difficult my sister could be and that I would be happy to let her do it alone. One thing was for sure: I didn’t want to share the role with someone who was difficult for me to get along with in everyday situations, much less a crisis. My Dad then changed his mind and appointed me as the decision-maker, the sole agent on the advance directive. Little did I know that not long after that, I would have to do what I was appointed to do.
My Dad, healthy all his life, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was a very difficult experience for me. When he was near the end, clearly failing, the doctors at the hospital would not discuss that his death was near. They pretended that they could keep on treating, poking, prodding, measuring, testing and doing things to him as if it were going to lead to a different outcome than the end of life.Carolyn and I discussed this at the time. It was getting more and more obvious that he was not going to make it out of the hospital.
It Was Up to Me to Do What Dad Wanted
Carolyn gently suggested to me that all the artificial life prolonging treatment Dad was getting was not what he wanted. That was why he had signed his advance healthcare directive. When she said this, I realized that I was the one who was supposed to tell the doctors to “pull the plug” and stop the futile treatment. I said to her, “I didn’t sign up to play God!”. Carolyn said, “God is playing God, you’re not. All you need to do is to tell these people to get out of the way so Dad can go in peace.”
I really struggled with this. He and my Mom had been married for 62 years. She wanted to cling to hope, although there was none. My only sibling, my sister, was an irrational mess. It was up to me to do what Dad wanted, and what he had put in writing. With Carolyn at my side, we went to the ICU and reminded the nurses that Dad had a healthcare directive and everyone was ignoring it. They were cooperative. Eventually, all the treatment stopped and Dad glided out of this life in a dignified and peaceful way. I look back knowing that I stood up for him the way he wanted me to do.
My Widowed Mom
My Mom did not think she could go on without Dad. She asked me how many sleeping pills it would take to kill herself. I have been a psychologist for decades, and I was quite worried about this. I realized that Carolyn and I had to spend some time with Mom and fast. After I took her back to her now empty house and stayed for a short time, I urged her to keep her plans to go to the beach that she had made with Dad before his illness. She said she was going to cancel the trip. I told her we would go with her. It was for 2 weeks, and the condo had been rented long before.
I Know Firsthand What It Means To Be a Caregiver For An Aging Parent
Carolyn and I left our work and went with Mom, spending those 2 weeks together. It was a 1-bedroom condo. We slept on a mattress on the floor. Not comfortable, for sure, but those 2 weeks turned Mom around. We worked with her every day, offering our support, nurturing and love. She cried, she talked, she thought and she reflected. She decided she wanted to live for her kids and grandkids and that she was going to make it. Now, 5 years later, she is an active, vigorous 91 year old who works out in the pool, plays cards with friends, sees movies and takes classes at the nearby University extension. She drives. She cares for herself. She travels to Lake Tahoe to visit us on our vacation. She gets on the plane by herself and is picked up at the airport by our daughter.
I know firsthand what it means to be a caregiver for an aging parent. I am in that role, even as I counsel others and work with Carolyn at AgingParents.com. We are both grateful to Dad for the lessons about end of life that he gave us a chance to learn. We are grateful to Mom for what we have learned from her about surviving and being a family with a successfully aging parent in it.