While Dad was in Washington to celebrate his 91st birthday a few weeks ago, my sister Marilyn and I decided to show him an independent-living facility. I thought the tour went well. But at a restaurant for lunch afterward, I realized too late that Dad had been unnerved by the experience.
Asked to be more specific about his plans for downsizing, he exploded.
“I’ve had enough of this,” he said, rising abruptly from his seat. He paid the tab and exited the restaurant so fast that his walking cane barely touched the floor.
The next day, he left town, and we haven’t spoken since.
I had read several of AARP’s suggestions for broaching difficult subjects with aging parents. Such as: “Give your loved ones room to get angry or upset, but address these feelings calmly.” According to the organization’s “Prepare to Care” family planning guide, I could have said to Dad, “I understand all this is really hard to talk about . . .”
But after those words, I would have been talking to an empty chair.
An article on the Web site A Place for Mom advises adult children to watch for signs that their resistant parents are “warming up” to the idea of moving. I like this organization because their TV advertisements used to make my parents laugh.
“What about a place for Dad?,” he would ask.
“Tsk, tsk,” Mom would say.
Adult children and their parents need to have that "other talk"
Since Mom died nearly two years ago, Dad has been living alone at his home in Shreveport, La. He says he doesn’t want to move. Not yet. Too many memories in the house that they built in 1965. He also likes having the space for a big-screen TV, computers and printers for his desktop publishing activities.
A studio or one-bedroom apartment strikes him as being little more than a hotel room.
Still, he was showing signs of warming.
“Who can I call at 2 a.m. if something is wrong?” he asks with increasing frequency when either of his three children call to check on him. “All of my family is gone. I’m the only one left.”
He has three children, all of whom love him very much. Perhaps that fact hadn’t come through clearly enough as I spoke to him. I was a student in his high school journalism class, which he taught for more than 35 years. I just assumed that he knew how much influence he’d had on me. He also built a successful printing and photography company, doing business with white-owned companies at a time when racial segregation was in full force. And I just assumed that he knew how proud I was.
That AARP guide says, “Be sure to acknowledge and build on family strengths.” Next time, I’ll be sure.
[Don’t give up trying to persuade an aging parent to move to better care]
Now Thanksgiving is upon us, long past time to clear the air. I wasn’t sure whether he was still angry or remorseful, so I asked Marilyn for an update before I called him.
She was surprised that I hadn’t heard what he’d done.
“Dad went to Las Vegas,” Marilyn said. “He saw Celine Dion.”
He had driven his car from Shreveport to Houston, where his daughter Docia lives. Then he flew to Phoenix to hang out with an old college pal — who happens to live in an upscale independent-living facility. Then on to Vegas.
Just knowing that he was having fun made me smile. We’ll have a good laugh when I call to mend fences. But then we’ll have to get back to making plans. I already know what’s most important to him: good health and not running out of money.
But what will he do if he gets sick? Or tumbles down the stairs? Or becomes forgetful? Do we have to wait for an emergency and let adverse circumstances dictate what happens next? How will he handle the constant calls from telemarketers and scammers?
I say he should hang up on them without saying a word. But he thinks that is rude. How do I get him to be a little meaner in the name of safety? How do I ask if he’s getting second opinions on auto repairs or medical diagnoses without arousing resentments?
The AARP guide suggests that we “plan something relaxing or fun after the conversation to remind everyone why you enjoy being a family. Go out to dinner, attend [church] services together, or watch a favorite TV program.”
Better yet, take me to Vegas next time.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.