“White tablecloths”. My father’s voice, somewhat dispirited, came over the phone. “What?” I asked. “White tablecloths at breakfast, white tablecloths at lunch. I like to read the paper when I have breakfast”.
He was talking about the grand assisted living facility in Niagara for which he had paid a deposit and arranged an apartment. Recently widowed, and living in the Maritimes, he had finally decided it was time to come back to Ontario to be close to his children.
“Oh dad, you have to share your table, you have to get to know people”. “Oh no, I just want to read the paper in the morning, I don’t want to sit with anyone”. He had decided assisted living was too regimented for him, what he wanted was something like how he was living in the Maritimes now, in his own house, with Kathie Rose, a local lady to “do” for him on a daily basis.
Youngest sister, in Niagara, had seen this coming. I’ll turn it over to her:
Youngest sister here. Nearly two months have passed since my mother’s death and several weeks since her grand send-off in Niagara-on-the-Lake. After having my 87 year old father in my care for a full week (with siblings taking him under their wings from time to time, as all were staying in the same motel) I saw him off on his flight to the Maritimes. He cleared security and entered the boarding lounge unsteadily but with his head raised, eyes fixed forward in anticipation.
Anticipation of what, I am now not certain. I felt confident that his path was clear. He had resolved to move to Ontario to be near us, he had signed up for the upscale retirement home, and he was already making lists of the things that he needed to do once he got home. Measurements and floor plans were just his thing. As I drove away from the airport I thought of him sitting there waiting to board and I realized this might be the first flight he has taken alone, without my mother, since his retirement from business 22 years ago.
Well, how things change in a short time! We had arranged that Kathie Rose would be there waiting for him with a hot meal, and the housekeepers had also been there that day so his home was clean and warm and someone was there to receive him. The first few days his spirits were up and we were busy back and forth on the phone making plans. Then one morning I received the email that I was half expecting … he sent it at a very early hour, so clearly he had been awake much of the night making his decision. As my older brother indicates above, no retirement home for him! He wanted me to find him an apartment.
This was the first of several change-ups to the plans that he and I had originally worked out. Instinctively, I knew not to challenge him but to hear him out, offer my views, suggest a range of other options, and end with a ‘let’s wait and see’ attitude. We both agreed nothing had to be decided immediately. So days went by and we talked frequently and I remained flexible and accommodating and shared with him little tidbits and the coming and goings of my life.
The conventional wisdom for recent widows and widowers of any age is to make no hasty decisions. It is advised that one should maintain normal routines and continue living where and how one lived before. It is recommended that this be done for a year, or at least six months. I can see the wisdom in this non-hurried approach, but I don’t think it is wise advice in my father’s case.
He has no normal routine because his companion of 62 years, upon whom he was utterly dependent for almost all aspects of his physical, emotional and social well-being, is gone. And coping in his home, which is full of his treasured things, is a complex undertaking that eludes him. He is an octogenarian who knows how to boil a single egg, play solitaire on his computer and drive to the post office at noon to collect his mail.
About one week after his return to Nova Scotia, my father phoned me in the late afternoon to tell me how lonely he was. His voice cracked with emotion. It was a beautiful fall day (my mother’s favourite kind of day) and he had driven home to an empty house. He said that before, he and my mother would have taken a drive with the little dog to a walking place to enjoy the fall afternoon. We talked at length about mum and the ways we miss her and I listened as he told me about the little things each day that make him think about her.
His spirits went downhill after that. While Kathie Rose still comes five days a week, it does not make up for the long hours of every day. While he has lots of work to do preparing for his move, he seems unable to gather momentum to get started on it. One evening at 7 o’clock he told me he was going to bed, because he felt so empty. After this, I resolved to make plans for him to come back for a visit, soon. I made plans for me to go down there for a visit right after that. Milestones! Things on the calendar! This is what he needed! This is what I am good at! I told him I would talk to him every day, and this pleased him so much. This, from my father who never talked to anybody on the phone when my mother was alive.
When my mother was sick, there was a degree of certainty about where it would all end up. Now, with my father the surviving spouse, there is little certainty. Brochures, handbooks, cancer guides and the Internet told us what was going to happen to mum. There is no similar user’s manual for caring for my father and seeing him comfortably to his final stage of life. No pat formulas, rules of thumb or pearls of wisdom seem to apply in his case. At this point, I don’t know what the coming weeks and months may bring.