family

'When I became my father's caretaker, I learned that he will never stop being my dad.'

Being responsible for the care of an ageing parent is not something that most of us envision happening.

When my beloved mum passed away four years ago, it was like everything we’d known was thrown up in the air and dad and I were tossed around helplessly, waiting to see where we fell. When we landed months later battered and bruised, our roles were forever reversed.

‘Don’t treat me like an idiot,’ my dad said to me recently. And he was right. He may be ninety but just because he needs help and care, he is still as smart as a whip. It’s one of many things I’ve had to learn.  

I have always admired my father – for his strength, intellect and humour, for his strong family values.

I am in awe of how he has led his life, what he achieved, of how he bought his young family to a new country to give us a better life. Of his devotion to his wife of sixty-one years.

Our relationship is very different now.

He has struggled to adjust to being the one who needs support rather than the one who gives it. It is not always harmonious. I nag too much; he can be stubborn!

Growing old does not take away a person’s pride. Being reminded to keep warm by someone you taught to tie their shoelaces is no doubt a humbling experience.

It’s gut wrenching when my dad says that he feels no point in living. For ninety he is in better physical and mental shape than most. What he feels is a lack of purpose.

It scares me to think that one day I will probably feel the same.

I talk to my dad every day. It’s usually no more than a minute conversation. But it may be the only human contact he has on that day and it is our way of checking in. Isolation and loneliness is every bit as debilitating as a physical ailment. It’s a game of numbers – at ninety there aren’t many friends left. Sometimes just a little chat goes a long way. The thought that there are hundreds of thousands of elderly people without social connections or someone to talk to makes me want to cry.

And I think of myself, with no children. Who will call me?

‘Don’t talk down to me,’ he says. He is right. I was doing that. Medical professionals do it too, often referring to him in the third person as if he’s not in the room. I love seeing dad get feisty when he feels he is being patronised.

It took years to finally convince him he needed a cleaner. It took the same amount of time for me to realise his protesting wasn’t just stubbornness. It wasn’t about the cleaning. Along with my husband we were keeping the place passably respectable. It was about pride and letting go. It was hard for him to accept the fact he needed help.

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It really is the circle of life. We yearn for independence when we’re young; and we’ll fight to the last when it’s threatened.

I had to stop myself from telling dad what to do. It was also tempting to take over and do everything for him. But I imagined myself in his position, and realized how much I would hate someone doing that to me. So together we work out the things he can still do. I try to be patient and listen to what he wants.  

A sense of humour is obligatory. I remember reading an article that described ‘care-giving as our final walk with our loved one’. This really resonated. It can either be a miserable experience or one I will remember with a degree of fondness. As frustrated as I used to get with my mum in her last years, I’d give anything to hold her hand one more time.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself, but more importantly I continue to learn from my dad. You don’t get to ninety without gathering some wisdom along the way. I realise I’ve got a long, long way to go as far as understanding how things work in this life. This generation has seen much. They have watched their loved ones die and yet are still able to keep going. It is this indomitable spirit from which we can learn.

I like the way other cultures revere their elderly. There is a law in China that warns adult children to "never neglect or snub elderly people" and mandate that they visit their elderly parents often. The universal expectation in Korea is that roles reverse once parents age, and that it is an adult child's duty to care for his or her parents. This seems to me a stark contrast to Western cultures which tend to be more youth-centric.

Many people undervalue what the older people in their lives have to offer. The unfortunate thing for those who shut themselves off is that they are missing out on valuable insights to life that only time and experience can teach us.

Above all he is still my dad. He still worries about me too. And for that I am grateful.

This time in my life is not permanent. I know that one day I will be tossed around again. But today is not that day.

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