Clean Sweep
My recently widowed 87 year old father has five children; oldest brother, who lives out west; older brother, me, living in Toronto; younger sister, also living out west; youngest sister in Niagara and youngest brother, also here in Toronto.
He is leaving his home in the Maritimes to come and live near youngest sister in Niagara, in a bungalow she owns, and which she is renovating for him. She has arranged a friend, Donnie, to live in the basement apartment and keep an eye on dad. He is excited about it, and all of us are immensely relieved, and deeply indebted to youngest sister. Here’s her latest update:
I have just returned from a week in the Maritimes visiting my father. The purpose of this visit – to make some progress towards his move. To start something, in the hope that its momentum would accelerate his own glacial pace.  It is now the eve of Christmas and I am hastening back to Ontario to attend to my own neglected family and business.
After this week I now understand that every step of my father’s move will have to be orchestrated by someone else. I am not sure if it is his bottled-up grief or his physical infirmity that prevents him from getting anything done. In any event, anything more complex than the simplest of tasks, such as addressing and stamping an envelope, overwhelms him.
For example, I did not expect on this trip that I would be explaining to him the basics of banking, bills and budgeting. I learned that he had tens of thousands of dollars sitting in various non-interest bearing chequing accounts, and suggested that we should put this money into better investments. I pointed out to him that living in his mortgage-free home was actually costing him about $1,000 per month in expenses, a fact that astounded him. He subscribes to a deluxe cable TV package even though his deafness prevents him from ever watching TV. On this visit I also learned that for seven years my parents have paid a monthly fee for a cellular telephone that they never once used.
My father was a man of international business. He travelled the globe, charmed his clients and managed multimillion-dollar installations of his company’s products. When I occasionally met him in an airport he was easy to spot in a crowd because he was the tallest and most distinguished looking man there, and often the best dressed. In restaurants, waiters were sharply attuned to his subtle cues and he always left generous tips. He was gracious at cocktail parties and helped everyone present to feel at ease. The world was his oyster. What happened?
I have long thought that young adults should take a compulsory course to learn the rudimentary skills of parenting. Likewise I think people my age should take a compulsory course to help us learn about our aging parents. My father’s decline, now in full evidence because my mother is gone and the business of her death is done, is shocking. Although he reads the entire Globe and Mail every day, and a New Yorker Magazine each week, I don’t think he retains any of what he reads nor does he grasp that the world has changed since he was a businessman. And when I try to help him better understand the ways of the modern world, he becomes belligerent.
I am certain that my mother would not have behaved like this, and she would have come quite willingly along the path that her children were helping to lay out for her. I don’t believe elderly women, in general, would ever be this way – intractable, contrary, irascible, stubborn, rude. But then, the world was never a woman’s oyster: their loss is so much less that their outrage will never be as great.   
My father’s greatest stubbornness is in the selling of his house. I am powerless to influence his line of thinking and have stopped trying. He bought his nice Maritime home several years ago in a strong real estate market, has done nothing to improve it, and is now quite convinced that he can sell it in a depressed market for one-third more than he paid. At the same time, he does not want to pay a real estate commission because he says he has paid too many of those already, having sold a total of three houses in his lifetime.
So my father’s house is for sale – but without the benefit of a listing agent, a sign, or a promotional campaign. He thinks I can put it on the Internet for him, or send notices around to people at the local university. I have owned 13 houses in my lifetime and thus have engaged in about 25 real estate transactions – but my advice on this subject means nothing to him. He is undeterred in his conviction that someone will chance along and pay him his full asking price. All I can do is allow him this belief for now, and see how it might change with the passage of time.
Fortunately there are some blessings to be counted – three in fact.
One, my father gave me permission to go through the house and throw away junk. To minimize friction I decided his study and bedroom were off limits, but I went through the rest of the house with abandon and he did not object once. And when I accidentally threw away his ancient pipe organ playing shoes (oddly they were stashed in the garage so it wasn’t totally my fault) he did not complain because he has been searching for an excuse to stop playing funerals and filling in on the organ bench, and now he has one. The handyman and I loaded up and removed two enormous trailer loads to the local recycling centre – a miracle!
Two, my father is in virtually no physical pain. Most elderly people his age are in constant pain, but he has none. In theory, the quality of his life is much better than average.
Three, he really has no financial worries. I think he comprehends this, although it does not alter his thinking about selling his house. He also wants me to be involved in financial decisions. I count my lucky stars that this process of helping my Dad to transition to a new home is not complicated by financial considerations. I know that he will be able to have whatever he needs, and in this regard he is vastly different from the majority of elderly Canadians.
My father will be alone this Christmas. This is not unusual, as our family does not gather at Christmas and this was his wish. I will call him daily and we will see what the New Year brings.