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When Roles Reverse
A GUIDE TO PARENTING YOUR PARENTS
By James B. Comer
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2006 James B. Comer
All rights reserved.
The Day Everything Changed
At the age of fifty-one I became a parent for the first time. Mine was not a planned parenthood. At the time I lived in Los Angeles, worked in public relations for a large corporation, and enjoyed a single man's life. On February 20, 1996, everything changed. I was awakened at seven in the morning by a phone call from my parents' next-door neighbor. In the thirty years she had lived by my parents, Lisa Huff had never called me. I braced myself for bad news.
She told me that my father was walking back and forth in front of his house in a daze. Her sidewalk diagnosis: he was having a stroke. Caring for Mother, who was dealing with early Alzheimer's, had taken its toll. By the end of the day, Dad was in intensive care, I was on a plane to Dallas, and our world had shifted forever.
When I arrived at the hospital I immediately became the designated decision maker. As the only child, everyone looked to me for answers; I wasn't even sure of the questions. I didn't know the names of my parents' doctors or accountant. I had never seen their wills. The only time Dad and I talked about money was when I needed a loan. Like many fathers and sons, our conversations focused on football, politics, and the relatives.
I knew nothing about their insurance, but over the next few days I learned. Once the hospital knew that Dad was not going to die, they wanted to know our exit strategy. Three days after his stroke, the hospital administrators were pushing me to choose a rehabilitation hospital for Dad.
There are excellent stroke centers in Dallas, but we had no relatives there. My aunts, uncle, and cousins lived near Austin, some two hundred miles south. When disaster strikes, friends and neighbors are a blessing but family is a necessity. I needed their support and I got it. My cousins Randy and Donna Stump were at the hospital when I arrived. Donna stayed with us for the next nine days.
Four days after Dad's stroke, I flew to Austin in a rainstorm to check out rehab centers. Another cousin, Bill Stump, met me at the airport and we visited four hospitals in six hours. I felt like I was holding auditions. I chose St. David's Rehabilitation Center because it was clean and two of the nurses smiled at me. I needed smiles badly that day. Like Americans electing a president, my decision was not an exercise in logic.
Once I selected a hospital, the question was what to do with Mother. She couldn't stay alone in Dallas, and I couldn't take her back to California with me because she needed constant supervision. For five years, my father had sheltered her from the reality of her disease. Mom needed watching, but didn't know she needed it. Dad spent much of his time keeping her in sight and out of trouble. Every time I mentioned moving to Austin she asked, "Why can't we stay in Dallas?" I told her we needed to be close to the family. She didn't buy it. Mother could not comprehend the enormity of the changes she faced. Instead she focused on being a good hostess to my cousins. One night she walked into their room at 4:00 A.M. to make sure they had enough blankets. Her grasp on reality was shaky, but her social skills were deeply rooted. On the other hand, Dad could not speak or walk, yet he understood all too well what had happened to him. He communicated his frustration through silent glares and by ripping out his catheter.
I went from no involvement in running my parents' lives to complete control. There were scores of decisions to be made. That first week I was dizzy with anxiety and overwhelmed by the number of things I didn't know. I came to appreciate the meaning of "comfort food." Texans love cafeterias and, despite three decades of living out of state, so do I. Luckily, the largest cafeteria in Dallas was located a block from the hospital. We ate lunch there every day, and I stuffed myself with turkey and dressing, brown gravy, sweet potatoes, carrot-raisin salad, and pecan pie. Those were the best ten pounds I ever gained.
I was running out of time to make a decision about Mother. As she would say, I was "fresh out of ideas." My cousins and their wives came to the rescue. They convinced me to let Mom stay with them in Georgetown, an all-American town of fifty thousand that is now a suburb north of Austin. Bill is an engineer and his wife, Bonnie, is a physician. Randy and Donna are lawyers. Between them, the two families had four jobs, five kids, and a number of elderly parents. Tending an eighty-three-year-old with Alzheimer's was not a small addition to their lives. I accepted their kind offer because I didn't know what else to do.
Nine days after Dad entered the hospital, we moved him to St. David's. Mother worried how we would pay for the ambulance. I reassured her that Medicare would cover the costs. With genuine concern she asked, "Can they afford it?"
While Mom read The Dallas Morning News, Donna and I went through her closet, packed her belongings as best we could, and got her into the car by telling a therapeutic lie. I said we were going for ice cream. Mother never turns down ice cream, not even at nine in the morning. We drove away from her home of thirty-four years as if going on an errand. She never saw Dallas again.
True to my word, I stopped at the first Dairy Queen and bought Mother a chocolate sundae. However, by the time we got to Waco, about one hundred miles south, it was clear we weren't just going for a sundae. Luckily, Mother's fragile short-term memory did not grasp the dimensions of my deception. She stayed in good spirits, humming Methodist hymns between comments on the colors of passing cars.
After the longest ride of my life, at 2:00 P.M. we pulled up to St. David's and met Dad's care team: doctors, nurses, therapists, and a social worker. They seemed relentlessly optimistic. Of course, they had yet to deal with my father. The staff said they'd keep me posted daily, which turned out to be more of a threat than a promise. I hugged Mother goodbye, left her in my cousins' care, and caught the five o'clock flight to Los Angeles.
Back in California, I faced a pile of work and the loving concern of coworkers. I didn't realize it yet, but I now had two careers. There was the fulltime paying position as a corporate writer for a large HMO in California and my unpaid assignment a thousand miles away. I was painfully unprepared for the new role. I did not have the remotest idea of how to care for my parents, much less from a distance. Instant parenting allows little ramp-up time. I had to maintain a cordial telephone relationship with the staff at the rehab center, monitor Dad's recovery, and keep tabs on Mother while living four states away. At the same time, I had to look ahead and plan the next step in what would become more than a decade of care.
All I could see were obstacles. I had to figure out their finances, learn about insurance, and educate myself about Medicare. I needed to know about retirement homes, assisted living, and nursing homes. What should we do with their house, furniture, and fifty-five years of mementos? I crammed for conversations with doctors, therapists, and social workers as I once did for biology finals. If I didn't stay on top of things, my father risked more than a bad grade. And then there was the question of what to do about my own future. This was not how I'd planned to spend my fifty-second year.
What Got Me Through the First Ten Days: Comer's Intensive Care Gratitude List
A boss who cut me some slack
Relatives who showed up without being asked
Neighbors who got Dad to the hospital by telling him they were taking him out for Mexican food
Doctors who used one-syllable words
Nurses who realized that a sense of humor is as important as a catheter
Despite all the paperwork, Medicare
Those who brought casseroles and cherry pies, and those who helped eat them
Friends who said nothing when there was nothing to sayCHAPTER 2
Starting Over at Fifty-One
Parenting is a relentless calling. There is no time off, sick leave, retirement package, or vacation pay. My new career had no discernible job description. That first trip to Texas was not a cameo appearance, but the beginning of a longrunning role to which I never aspired. Phone calls brought the hospital home to me each day. I heard from administrators, relatives, and insurance agents. The government required forms. And everyone expected me to know what to do.
Two weeks after the first trip, I was back in Austin for the first of many extended weekends. I took a cab to the rehab center and found Dad alone in his room. This man had flown seventy-six combat missions in World War II, supervised a sales force in thirteen states, repaired cars, knew about world religion and baseball, lectured at a junior college, and taught Sunday school. He also watched Saturday Night Live and argued existential philosophy. Dad is brilliant, cantankerous, and fiercely independent.
Now he was lying in a hospital bed unable to walk, speak clearly, or control his bodily functions. When he saw me come into the room, he knew exactly what he wanted. After a few awkward moments, he gathered his strength and forced out three words: "Get me pills." He took a long breath and repeated the phrase in case I'd missed the point.
I knew exactly what he meant. He wanted me to get pills so he could kill himself. In his mind, the thought of being dependent on others was worse than death. He was eighty-six and had lived a full life. If this was his future, he wanted out now. After a long pause, I said that I couldn't do that because it was against the law.
"Dad, I'll go to jail."
"You'll go to hell?"
"Not hell. Well, maybe hell, too. I can't do it."
Dad's look expressed unprintable volumes about my decision. I lied as forcefully as possible. "You're going to get well. You're going to walk again." I didn't believe a word of it. Neither did he.
My father is not an easy patient in the best of times. After the stroke, he was demanding, depressed, and unwilling to do the exercises that might allow him to recover. The big issue—one so humiliating he could not see beyond it—was incontinence. He felt a constant need to relieve himself and demanded instant attention from the nurses. He did not care that he was one of thirty stroke patients on the floor. If the staff did not respond quickly enough to suit him, they heard him yell all the way down the hall. He used words not included in his Sunday school lessons.
After three days in Texas, I flew back to California. Though I'd already used up my vacation days for the year, my manager told me to do what I had to do and kept paying me. Many caregivers are not so lucky.
For the first time, I received a "parent-teacher" call. I'd never had one of those uncomfortable conversations. The focus was not on a first-grader but on an octogenarian. We weren't talking about why Johnny can't read, but why John Comer raised so much hell. My father's caseworker bemoaned his negativity and lack of cooperation. She complained that he would not do his exercises, often screamed at the staff, and showed no signs of wanting to recover. She told me that his attitude was a serious problem and, if it didn't change soon, he would not be allowed to stay in rehab. I couldn't picture my Dad flunking out of a hospital.
"What are you going to say to him?" she wanted to know.
Not wanting to irritate the frustrated professional at the other end of the line, I vowed that I would talk to him immediately and straighten things out. That was another blatant lie. My dad was hard of hearing before the stroke and almost totally deaf after it. He could understand nothing on the phone. Even if he could have heard me, I had as much power to change his attitude as to restore his hearing.
Dad had been sound challenged for years. Under pressure from Mother and me, he had bought hearing aids five years earlier and had worn them three times. He claimed they were defective. The truth was that he hated their tinny, unnatural sound. Forced to choose between conversation with constant background noise or silence, he opted for silence.
Over the years Dad had adjusted gradually to his hearing loss. I had not. If he watched TV, he turned up the volume all the way. When he wanted conversation, he talked. If you wanted to talk to him, you yelled. Either it was worth shouting or not worth saying at all. My friends knew when I'd spent time with Dad because I stood in their personal space and tripled my volume.
After the stroke Dad comprehended nothing I said on the phone and little when I was there in person. If I wanted to make sure he understood, I wrote notes. His lack of hearing, however, worried me less than his suicidal depression. On my next trip, Dad's doctor suggested a possible solution. If we could get him to agree to a simple prostate procedure, he might regain control of his bodily functions and become motivated to recover. The doctor wanted to operate immediately. Most stroke patients make their greatest gains within the first three months, and Dad had already used up six weeks. Time was running out.
Using a yellow legal pad, I wrote a detailed explanation of what the doctor wanted to do. Knowing Dad's analytical mind, I made a logical case for the surgery. To my surprise, he put up no argument and signed the medical release. When I saw Mother later that day, she wanted to know when they were going back to Dallas. I said something soothing and untrue, and then caught a peanuts-only flight to L.A. I was getting good at lying to those I loved.
The prostate operation was a complete success. Within a few days Dad was able to urinate unassisted. That's when he decided that he wanted to live. But he had a long way to go. He was not walking, talked only in short phrases, and was unable to get out of bed by himself. However, his attitude underwent a radical transformation after the prostate operation. For the first time since the stroke he was focused on recovery.
My relief was short lived. The next week St. David's informed us that Dad would have to leave because he did not meet their guidelines for "patient progress." We had one week to find another skilled nursing facility. I argued in vain for more time. I begged. My long-distance pleas proved ineffectual when pitted against the entrenched forces of medical bureaucracy.
I flew back the next weekend to check out care facilities. I had three days to find a place where Dad could receive intensive therapy and Mother could stay in assisted living. I could not foist her off on my cousins any longer. I visited nursing homes that ranged from decent to rip-your-heart-out depressing. Then I went to The Summit, aptly located on a hill with a view of the Austin skyline and surrounded by acres of trees and upscale landscaping. It offered apartments, assisted living, skilled nursing, and an Alzheimer's unit.
At The Summit, life was in session. The food was excellent, the waiters friendly, the napkins linen, and the rooms spacious. The atmosphere seemed more Ritz-Carlton than Motel 6. The residents looked genuinely happy, and there was no institutional odor when I walked in the front door. Of course, amenities are expensive, although Medicare would pay for Dad as long as he qualified for rehab. I asked the admissions director if they had openings in skilled nursing and assisted living on the following Monday. She looked at me as if I'd lost my mind but checked the bed count anyway. Suddenly her face brightened and she announced, "There are two rooms available on Monday! Your mom and dad will be only two floors apart!" She told me three times how lucky we were and acted as if we had won the lottery. Maybe we had.
Excerpted from When Roles Reverse by James B. Comer. Copyright © 2006 James B. Comer. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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