What to do when parents get older? My dad, in his mid-80s, found himself in an Edmonton hospital, and, after assessment, was told he was unable to return home to live independently with Mom, his wife of more than 50 years. Planning to be the rescuer, the one to whisk my ageing parents back to Ontario to live with me (it would be just like the good old days), I catch a flight to see Dad. Isn't this the way it's supposed to be? I think, as I head west. The way other cultures -- like the Italians and the Greeks -- do it? Take parents home? I criticize my peers who have chosen other alternatives -- like the dreaded nursing home -- for their ailing parents. "A cop-out," I think, "a selfish lot, our generation."
Arriving in Alberta, I gaze in surprise at my frail 85-year-old dad. The last time I had seen him, a few months earlier, he had seemed so vibrant. But still, I'm resolved to bring him home with me, undeterred by the wheelchair or the prognosis calling for around-the-clock care. "I'm taking him home to Ontario with me," I announce to the doctor. "That's nice of you," he says, not without amusement, as he signs the permission slip for my father's first day pass. But other health professionals offer warnings. "Do you have any idea how much work this is?" says one. "You'll need a hospital bed and electronic stairs and ramps," another nurse advises. "Can't be more work than it was for them when I was a kid," I retort. This is payback time for my devoted parents.
And there is some good news, the doctor tells me. My dad doesn't show any
signs of the depression that often accompanies the degenerative condition he
has, a rare form of Parkinson's disease. He's still laughing and happy. I grab
this opportunity to ask the doctor a question that has been preying on my mind. "Um," I
stammer, "um, Dad asked me if I can give him a drink. Do I have your permission
to mix him a drink?" The shocked doctor looks at me as if I've lost my mind. "I
can't approve that," he says, but looking at my determined gaze, he adds, "if
you insist on it, but only half an ounce." Half an ounce? Quite a compromise
for my once hearty, party-loving Irish dad, but better than nothing, I think.
And I have the doctor's blessing, well, sort of.
Anyway, this is how I end up sneaking into the hospital, a mickey of vodka poking from my purse. "Aren't you happy now that you have a rebel daughter?" I ask my dad, pointing out that I'm the only member of the family who would even consider granting this wish. Me, the black sheep growing up, although with a judge and an RCMP officer as siblings, I must admit I didn't have any real competition for the title. But to be 85, not able to walk, not even able to pour a drink ... Of course, I'm about to change all that, or so I think.
I pull the car up to the front door of the hospital and jump out to help the nurse who is assisting my father. It takes a while to get my 178-pound dad into the car. "You're lucky that I'm a lot lighter than I used to be," he says with more sincerity than sarcasm. Of course, 178 pounds with a 30-plus-pound wheelchair does get heavy, which explains why a hearty-looking man who is also there picking up his dad is using a hoist to raise the chair. "Don't worry, Dad, I'll get used to all of this," I assure him as, breaking into a sweat, I finally get into the car. We head for the West Edmonton Mall. I push through the mall, up the ramps, through the crowds. We watch the kids skate on the indoor arena. "Isn't this fun, Dad?" I ask, looking expectantly for the old familiar enthusiasm on his face. "Actually, I'm a little cold," he admits. But when he sees the disappointment on my face, he adds, "But don't worry, I'll be OK."
Dad humours me as I wheel him through the rides at Galaxyland; we watch the dolphins and finally have dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory. "Whatever you want to do," he keeps saying, "don't worry about me." I'm surprised to see that Dad looks as though he's putting up with all of this for me. As we struggle to get him back in the car, he apologizes. "I don't move as fast as I used to," he says. "That's the understatement of the year," I reply. My father lets out his huge familiar belly laugh and all is well with the world.
We go for drives and family barbecues and more shopping, until finally, exhausted and sore after four days of pushing and heaving wheelchairs and looking after my dad, I announce, "Today we're just staying in the hospital room." I sit for three hours and we reminisce about the good old days, including the day when I was 16 and crashed the car (how many times have I heard that one? I wonder) and the great Christmases we had when there were so many toys under the tree you couldn't even walk into the living room. When I finally get up to leave, Dad says with a smile on his face, "You know, now this was a great day, this was the best day yet."
After all my efforts of the past few days, all I have done today is sit and listen, and my dad's thrilled. I realize I had wanted Dad to be the same vital father I had always known, wanted to prove to myself and to him that he could do all the things he used to do, that his life wasn't changing. But instead of being the hero who is taking Dad home to live with me, I'm facing the fact that I can't give him the physical care he needs (he and Mom are moving into an apartment where they can get nursing help). But I can still help him escape, even if it's only in his mind, back to the good old days. We can even do that by phone long distance.
Of course, I'll have to make more frequent trips to Edmonton. Unless someone else is willing to mix those half-ounce drinks for him. I only hope there's someone around to do the same for me when I'm 85.