December 2, 2011

Relationship-Building With Your Parents While There is Still Time

A year ago I had a post that offered some ideas on how to make the relationship between you and your adult children better as you journey through your satisfying retirement. If you missed it check it out here. A reader suggested I take a look at the changing relationship between us and our elderly parents. 

Over the past year I have experienced this shift in my dealings with my dad. Mom died just about a year ago, leaving him alone for the first time in over 63 years. The family had real concerns about his ability to adjust to life without her. For over six decades his life had been completely centered on her and her happiness. If I ever needed a model for a loving husband I only had to look at him. But, what would happen after the object of that devotion was no longer there? Would he become depressed, withdrawn, and simply wait to join her?

The answer has shocked us all. He has maintained his lifelong positive attitude. At almost 88 years of age, he continues to live independently, sing in two different choirs, read at least a book a week, participate in family gatherings (like last week's Thanksgiving dinner), maintain a clean home, and develop a routine for shopping and laundry. 

More to the point of this post, his relationship with me and my wife, Betty has deepened. We have become the human anchors in his life. Certainly not in the way he interacted with mom, but he cherishes our visits. When we have lunch with him every Saturday at the retirement community dining room, he always refers us as his "very special friends" to the hostess. He saves newspapers and magazines he thinks we will enjoy.

He has become comfortable with turning over virtually all of his financial matters to me. I always tell him what is going on and what his broker suggests, but he trusts me to handle his estate so the assests will be there for his three sons. While he still likes to write checks to pay the monthly fee to the retirement community, everything else is my responsibility. I had begun to be his financial ears and eyes a few years ago, but the degree to which he has turned control over to me has accelerated since mom's passing.

Never a talkative soul, he has slowly begun to initiate conversations and ask questions about other family members. Trust me, that is a big change. While mom was alive he was perfectly content to simply sit and listen. And, until the last few visits that remained his style. But, suddenly, over the last month or so he has initiated conversations about political and world events, asked how certain family members are doing, and whether I think his beloved Phoenix Suns will play again this season. If I mention something in passing, a week or two later he will ask a logical follow up question.

He has begun to limit some of his activities. Daily walks around his neighborhood are rare due to back pain that was caused by lifting mom in and out of bed and wheelchairs for almost 2 years. Of course, I've asked him to see if a doctor could help, but he has decided not to pursue it. He drives very rarely and has announced that when the car battery dies he will give up driving (no, I'm not planning on leaving the lights on to speed up the process!). He is thinking of dropping out of the choir that is part of the church that he and mom attended. It is almost 15 miles away and the trip is tiring to him.

I do worry that his world is closing in on him. Unless we are visiting or he has choir rehearsal, his days are spent in a lounge chair reading and napping. He watches the news at dinner time and every Phoenix Suns game (when they are playing). Otherwise, he has expressed no interest in watching movies or listening to music. He has steadfastly refused to learn to use a computer but does carry a cell phone I purchased for him whenever he leaves the house. The community in which he lives offers all sorts of social activities, both on campus and off. But, he is uninterested. Even so, he seems happy and content. His short term memory is pretty spotty but he writes everything he must do in a notebook that operates as his calendar. He has yet to forget any appointments or paying he few bills he still likes to handle.

To watch him handle the greatest loss of his life with grace and maturity has been both surprising and gratifying. To have him begin to slowly open up and converse is a treat. Just a few months shy of his 88th birthday, I'd say dad is a blessing in my life that continues to amaze and please me.

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  1. What a wonderful post. I have seen the same thing happen with my Mom who had always told us she wanted to die first. However, when my Dad died she displayed, and continues to display, remarkable resilience. I don't think I would want to be alone as much as she is but then she had never lived alone in her life so this is a change she is handling well. Best wishes to your Dad.

  2. Juhli,

    Thanks for the wishes for my Dad. I'm going to hear him sing Saturday at a concert his group is putting on at the Health Center.

    I just pray that if I am ever in his situation I will handle it as well as he has. I am a bit of a loner by nature, but after 35 years and counting, I'd have a very tough time without my partner.

  3. A great person I once worked with said that the opening that you see in infancy is done in reverse as we live a long life's exit. Our world closes in as we gather together the people we love and give back the story of our Iives that was started so many years before.
    I love that pictures of your father with your grandchild. Full circle. He is fortunate to have you. You are fortunate to enjoy listening to his life story.

  4. Great post. My dad still drives at 90. I hate that he drives but if he didn't then he would just sit around all day..........certainly a dilemma.

  5. Bob, it is wonderful to hear the story about you and your dad. I dreamed of having that kind of relationship with my dad. He died within 5 months of being diagnosed with colon cancer and he was never able to crack the veneer that enveloped him to see what might have been nearer to his soul. I guess most male parents of kids our age lived a pretty stoic lives. Fortunately not so much for us; our generation learned to open up more but still not enough.

    Good luck with your dad. I pray he continues to age well.

  6. Janette,

    Full circle--isn't that the truth! We are glad we all have each other at this time of our lives.


    The driving thing is tough. Luckily, he doesn't go many places, but we still worry. Thank goodness I convinced him to carry a cell phone and teach him how to use it.


    Dad has been quite stoic his entire life. He still doesn't show many highs or lows except when he hugs us during our visits. He lost his dad in his teens and basically had to support his mom and two brothers so his focus has been on carrying the weight. Maybe he is making up for lost time by reading a lot and simply enjoying the passage of time.

    Thanks for your wishes.

  7. Bob,
    It sounds like you don't have to worry about your dad too much - you are lucky!Since my mom died last year, I've tried not to worry about my dad constantly, but it's difficult because he lives alone, his health is not great, and on top of that he is a heavy drinker. When my mom was alive, I really didn't have to deal with him too much, but now as the oldest child I feel like I am somewhat responsible for his welfare. But there is not much I can do, because I live 2,000 miles away. Spending more time talking to him has just made me realize that alcoholics are very selfish people. It's sad.

  8. Julie,

    Yes, your situation sounds quite difficult. I have never had to deal with that type of problem or trying to manage things long distance. It is sad and I wish for you strength to deal with what is happening.

    Thank you for sharing.

  9. Oh my gosh, Bob... My experience during my dad's last few years was so parallel to yours. We worried so about him after my mom died. And he did so much better than we had expected. In those final years, I grew closer to my dad than I had ever before been. Bill

  10. Bill,

    Human beings, even ones we believe we know well, have the capacity to continually surprise us.

  11. Steve in Los AngelesSun Dec 04, 10:46:00 PM MST

    Hi Bob,

    What you wrote about your dad is beautiful. During the last four years of my dad's life, my dad and I were extremely close. (My dad passed away in October 2002.) My dad outlived my mom by almost three years. Almost every Saturday and Sunday, I would pick up my dad at the assisted living house where he lived. That house was about a 15-minute drive from my house at that time. We almost always went out to eat. We often went to visit relatives, such as his sister, who he regularly enjoyed seeing.

    My dad truly was an amazing man! Although I miss him (as well as my mom) very much, I very much cherish those wonderful times we spent together as I know he did. I know without a doubt that the loving devotion I gave to him gave a tremendous amount of meaning and happiness to his life (as it did to my life) and that the time we spent together extended his life.

    Although tears do come down my face when I write about this, I am grateful for all of those wonderful years. My dad (and mom) definitely is missed but never will be forgotten.


  12. Steve,

    Thank you for sharing so openly. Losing our parents under any circumstance is difficult.

    I went to hear my dad's choral group perform last Saturday. He was so pleased to see me and my daughter in the audience it certainly made the time and effort to be there well worth it. I am well aware that whatever time my wife and I spend with him is the highlight of his week.


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