I am flying home after a short trip to Florida to help out my aging parents. How did the weekend go? The answer depends on how you see the world. Mom says, “Doesn’t dad look healthy? He’s doing so well, except that he can’t walk.” My brother, who came last weekend, says, “He just needs more PT to be stronger and he will soon be walking again.” My sister, who has made multiple visits to help my parents, says, “Dad is declining fast.”
The reality of my father is that he is far from “healthy” and “well” but it is also not a fast decline. My father is at the end of his life. He can no longer walk. He can no longer wipe himself after he shits. He needs a catheter inserted in him to urinate. He does not seem to understand much, does not engage in conversation except for a few words. Has no memory of the moments that went just before. He is slowly slipping away. He seems happy but vacant.
It is like living with a ghost. My mother is surrounded by a husband she can no longer talk to and various service people, mostly men, who help my father dress, shower, poop, pee and get out of bed and into the wheelchair, etc. She has lost her privacy and is a slave to the schedules of home health aides and agencies that keep my father’s life functioning in their home.
It is a strange thing to watch someone’s humanity slip away. The man my father once was is mostly gone. Replaced by a ghost, who eats, sleeps and shits. There are moments when he smiles like my father and is vacant in the very next moment.
On Saturday I called a very old friend of my father who lives in Israel so they could talk. My father was genuinely moved by the man’s kind words and it touched something deep inside him. But the moment did not last more than a few minutes.
My father now has round the clock care. The man who cares for him six days a week does everything for him, including the catheter. The men who come to watch him overnight are a new thing. Only two weeks ago we had my mother agree to move into the guest room, so she could get some rest and brought in aides to provide 24 hour-a-day care. The aides are not nurses and cannot do the catheter, so on Sunday’s and any other time when the primary caregiver is off, a nurse also comes three times a day just to do the catheter.
When I visit, I do the catheter. It is a strange thing to put on gloves, take your father’s penis, and put a long slick tube down it. I feel no emotion either way about doing this. As a former EMT for almost six years and a father who cleaned up the poop and throw up from my baby son, the catheter is just one more messy task of human existence that I have learned to do. I also suspect as a gay man, caring for others is one of our genetic traits.
Seeing your parents at the end of their lives has me think of my own life. While I feel like a young man inside, I turned 60 this year. I am almost exactly 30 years younger than my father. When I think of my own aging, I have no desire to let my life get to the point that my father is at. I am happy to live a well-lived life then exit the stage before I go downhill too much. I do not understand our society’s desire to force people to live to the last second that their bodies will live. I want to make my exit on my own terms.
In two weeks I come back to Florida with my two brothers and our families for the holidays. It will be interesting as we, and our children, nieces, and nephews, all observe our aging parents through our own lenses and discuss and dissect how to best take care of them.