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Parenting the Parents

October 19, 2009

My Dad is an incredible man – you’ve heard me talk about him before. Born in a log cabin that was built in the late 1800s, no running water, and he not only had to walk to school, but the trip required a row boat and a horse too!

In the last 60 years, he has owned three businesses, raised a family, owned a vacation home, an RV, and has always driven sporty cars. He pioneered some “green” practices within the municipal water distribution systems around Portland. (To be truthful, he wasn’t trying to be green ~ that word didn’t exist in the 1980s ~ he was just being frugal and practical)

My Dad is an optimist, he is driven, and everyone likes him. In 1998, after his stroke, I flew to Portland to take over his duties.  For two weeks straight, everyone I spoke with told me what a great guy my Dad is – and I still hear that from people.  He is very well liked.  My Dad works hard, he doesn’t take no for an answer, and he knows how to get the job done – no matter how many rolls of duct tape, sheet rock screws, or bailing wire it takes.

But, his chronological age doesn’t match his biological age. In the early 90s he had open heart surgery to replace a congenitally defective valve.  A couple of years later  a physician made a medication error  that almost killed my Dad from a cardiac tamponade.  I’ve spent a lifetime in the back of ambulances, it’s a whole new experience to be back there with my own father.  Then, as I mentioned, almost 11 years ago, once again due to a medication error, my Dad suffered a stroke.

All my life he’s told me that I may get bigger/stronger/smarter – but I’ll never be tougher than him. Now, I help him carry his laundry into the house from the car.  He’s still tough – there is no doubt about that – unfortunately, his body has betrayed him.  Sometimes mental toughness is not enough though.

During his Korean Conflict Army tour, they discovered his IQ to be 140. Well within Mensa qualifications.  Unfortunately, raised in abject poverty, with no emphasis on school, and very little post high school education, my Dad was never able to capitalize on that raw computing power between his ears.  In fact, it was his lack of understanding in capital  finance and business practices that forced him to leave self-employment – more than once.

Right after my Dad’s stroke, in another poorly made financial decision, my parents sold their house (which was almost paid for), and proceeded to burn through years of capital in a very short period of time.  Now, three and a half years after my Mom’s death, my Dad lives in a 20 x 20, one-room, studio “house.”  This is a step up from the 24 -foot RV where he was living in my driveway – but not much.

My brother and I, in an attempt to allow my Dad his independence and freewill, have tolerated this sub-standard living space.  The place is cold, drafty, and smells of mildew.  Less than 25% of his lifetime accumulations are in the house, the rest are at my house.  In addition to the downscale environment, the place has electrical issues and other safety concerns.

When he lived in our driveway, he would eat many meals with us. One concern we now have is whether he is meeting his nutritional needs.  It appears that he’s lost weight and vigor, since he moved  into his own place a few months ago.  He has lost stamina and even balance.  But despite repeated invites, he seems to prefer his independence.

Lately, we’ve been trying to find another solution that would provide a better standard of living.  We once again offered to let him move into our spare bedroom, which is a little smaller than his house, but he didn’t want to do that.  We offered to move out of our master suite – giving him fully 25-30% of our house, his own bathroom, enough room to set up a kitchenette, and a room as big as his current house.  Overall he would increase his living space by 30-40%.  He was reticent.

We persisted in inviting him to move in with us. Finally, I resorted to the idea that we needed the help – financially.  The $3-400/month that he would pay, might  enable us to keep our house – given our own unemployment/cash-flow issues.  This is the truth, by the way – but not the original motivation.  Finally he relented.

So, I asked him when he was going to give notice at his current place?  Not until the end of October.  Hmmmmm….

As The Wife and I discussed this, we came to the very real observation, that he doesn’t want to move in with us.  He would have his own entrance, we’d make accommodations for his dog, et cetera, and so forth, but…  The bottom line is, he values his independence more than he does his health and his comfort.

Of course, everyone has to die someday, but no one enjoys facing the death of their parents.  In fact, most people revert to infancy before their death – whether through dementia, failing health, or whatever, at some point the kids need to step in and parent the parents.  Sometimes we have to manage their medications and finances, other times we have to take away their car keys.

UPDATE: Last night, before I was able to post this, my Dad joined us for a nice dinner. (Yummy Lentil soup!)

I asked my Dad last night if he really didn’t want to move in.Not really.” he said.

I asked him if he’d rather stay where he is.  “Yep

I asked him these important questions:  “How will we know when you’re no longer able to take care of yourself? When will we know to take your car keys away?  When will we have to make those decisions for you?” Or, to sum it all up: “Are you going to fight us all the way?

His answer was not unexpected, but was pretty funny: “You better believe it!

And we all had a good laugh – but I hope he thinks about it.


[Confidential PS to my brother: Dad is still planning to move in with you when you get your house built – “because he’ll have more privacy there.”]

  1. October 19, 2009 1:34 pm

    From Facebook:

    “I’m feeling this with you, Gary. I’ve been dancing around this issue with my mother for the past four or five years now. You’ve got to especially watch the eating thing.

    “It’s no fun cooking for one.”
    “I cook too much food.”
    “Food doesn’t taste that good.”
    Mt personal favorite, “I’m eating too much and getting fat.”

    But the truth is she doesn’t getting a balanced diet, she is not eating enough, and she won’t get the proper amount of exercise. About every six months she gets forgetful and I ask if she has been taking her B12 complex. The answer, of course, is “no, I don’t remember taking that.” I buy another bottle after confirming the old bottle is empty and within a couple of days she gets her memory back.

    The only thing worse than becoming parents to our parents will be our time becoming children to our children. I’m not looking forward to that.”


    • October 19, 2009 1:39 pm

      My Dad, the eternal optimist, doesn’t really lie, bend the truth, or forget (in the food category that is), he just denies. Denial is his favorite tool.

      He would totally fail in a POW camp next to Admiral Stocksdale. (see the book, Good to Great)


  2. October 19, 2009 2:03 pm

    From Facebook:

    Thanks for posting this. You are really going through what folks are calling the sandwich generation. It was hard for me when my dad got sick, but I couldn’t help him except emotionally. I think that counted for something, but it is nowhere what you are going through.

    However as someone who has always lived on her own (since 18), not to mention I’m very independent, I can appreciate him wanting to stay on his own. No matter how hard it is for kids, I still think parents should be able to make their own decisions as long as they don’t appear to be harming anyone, including themselves.

    And regarding medication: I used to have someone measure mine out for me because someone was stealing from me. I don’t have that problem anymore, but I still put them out in their containers for each day, and that includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, bed. We can’t always remember when we take something, especially when it is so automatic.


    • October 19, 2009 2:09 pm

      Indeed, and I agree. I may go over some day and find him dead in his recliner, but that is his choice.

      I too take several meds per day – but with young kids in the house, the commercially available med containers aren’t suitable – so I’ve had to find more creative methods to jog my memory.

      I did ask him if he thought it would be good to move in with someone and establish relationships before things got bad? “Nope!”

      He will fight us, every step of the way!


  3. rog permalink
    October 19, 2009 7:18 pm

    Hmmm ……. Fun.


  4. Karen permalink
    October 19, 2009 7:31 pm

    We’re not there yet, on either side. Praise God for how healthy our parents have been! But we are thinking about the when and where and ifs…


    • October 20, 2009 8:22 am

      It was about 20 years ago when another of the chiefs I worked with lost his Dad. Though I didn’t know Dave that well, nor did I understand the immensity of losing a parent, I was struck buy the thought of having the top layer gone – no one to oversee, seek advice, or play backup to my life screw ups.

      Losing my Mom three + years ago really taught me the meaning of death. In fact, I’ve gone to several friends and made this speech:

      “When (your parent/child/spouse) died, I tried to be appropriately sympathetic. But after my Mom’s death, I just want to say, ‘I get it now and this time I’m really sorry.'”

      Losing my Dad will be very hard. He’s the only man I’ve truly worshiped.


  5. Rodrigo Andres permalink
    October 19, 2009 7:44 pm

    My father is the same exact way! If anything seems off to him he just denies it. It can be really annoying but I do it too haha.


  6. Terre permalink
    October 20, 2009 2:07 pm

    Thanks Gary for posting your thought on your dad’s aging. We are of the generation (around 50) where we begin to be forced to realize that our parents will not be around much longer. And even more importantly, that WE will be taking care of them as they regress. It is all part of life, and I appreciate your raising this issue.

    (I didn’t realize just how wonderful my dad was until after his untimely death. Thanks for being at the memorial and your words.)


    • October 22, 2009 10:11 am

      Yeah Terre, I never really knew your dad very well. I can’t even imagine the pain of losing the two most significant men in your life in one event. Like I’ve told a number of people, I didn’t really understand that pain until my Mom died – now, I get it. I’m sorry.



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