And, in the article, she proceeds to discuss her famously eccentric ninety-something father's lingering, increasingly frail and expensive life and the toll this is taking on his dignity and on the family. There are both emotional and financial stresses, the pain of an already complicated relationship made more so by the demands of his aging.
Sandra Tsing Loh has a lot of company among fellow Baby Boomers. We've watched our parents age, not always gracefully. We've seen final illnesses, sudden deaths, undignified aging and long lingering goodbyes for some of our most beloved family members. And in the midst of this, there may be moments of wishing it would all be over -- and then feeling horrified that we could think such a thing.
If we haven't been caregivers yet, we see the stress on a caregiving parent and fear the worst -- that stress will claim the life of the healthier spouse first.
Sometimes it happens.
My childhood friend Sue's mother cared for her demented husband for some years, then was stricken with cancer. Sue was devastated for both parents and juggled her job at an insurance company with coordinating treatments, hospitalizations and paid caregiving for both her parents.
One day, she got a call from the hospital that her mother was near death. Her boss insisted that she needed to stay for an afternoon-long meeting to wrap up a project. She protested that her mother might not survive until after the end of the meeting. After another even more urgent call from the hospital, Sue told her boss she needed to leave immediately and barely made it to her mother's side as she breathed her last. Then she went to her parents' home to find that her father's paid caregiver for the afternoon shift had not shown up and her dad had spent the unsupervised time alone smearing feces all over the living room walls and himself.
She called in to work and let her boss know that her mother had died. She told him she would come in early the next day to reschedule the meeting. He told her not to bother, that she no longer had a job.
She screamed soundlessly, tears streaming down her face, as she turned on the shower to bathe her father.
And all the while, Sue told me later, she raged inside: "Why couldn't you have died instead of Mom? When is this going to be over?" And then, filled with love and guilt, she embraced her dad under the running water.
I could empathize. My father suffered from Parkinson's disease and the related dementia as well as out of control diabetes. He didn't know night from day. He flew into rages. When my sister Tai or I would try to help care for him, he would make creepy, distressing sexual overtures. He was totally incontinent. He had an insulin shock at least once a day and seemed to live on a diet of rum and Coke and orange sherbet. He was surly and combative and delusional -- seeing hordes of brown violin spiders that weren't there.
There were times when I just wished my father would die so my mother could live. And one day he did. But it was too late. Mother was so exhausted and stressed that she died of a heart attack four months to the day after his death. We were heartbroken that our mother had not had the time to follow some of her long-deferred dreams. And we felt guilty, both when he was still living and after he was gone, that we had talked of our father's death so casually and, at times, wished for it so fervently. When he died, my anger and frustration melted away as I grieved for the loss of a father both monstrous and dear.
Losing a parent is a profound, life-changing event. And, for many Baby Boomers, there is a long goodbye -- the devastation of dementia, the long and painful road of cancer, the dwindling away of emphysema or COPD or heart failure. In these cases, you lose a parent over time, in heartbreaking increments -- and sometimes you wish -- for their sake and yours -- that it were over.
If you've found yourself in this situation, it doesn't mean you're a bad son or daughter. You may have times when you feel blessed to be able to give back to your parent, to care for the person who once cared for you. But there may be times -- when you see him or her suffering, when the indignities of infirmity are suddenly overwhelming and the stress of balancing your life with these new responsibilities may make you wonder "How long is this going to go on?"
Mixed feelings are normal.
You love your parent but hate the dying process.
You are grieved by the prospect of losing your parent -- and appalled at the prolonged ordeal.
You are distraught watching the suffering of someone you love so much -- and, at the same time, dread letting go and losing him or her.
You suffer through a multitude of losses when a parent descends into dementia, losing the parent and person you've always known and caring for the beloved stranger he or she has become.
And in those moments when you wonder "How much longer?" or "Sometimes I wish he (or she) would die" and feel instant remorse, it's important to remember that you are not alone, that such feelings are common in these stressful and sad situations -- and that no one else can read your mind.
It's important to admit your full range of feelings to yourself, to forgive yourself, to accept yourself as is and, should you need to seek therapy in order to deal with your tumultuous feelings, get it sooner rather than later in order to have constant, non-judgmental support as you live through this major life transition.
Therapy may be especially important if there is a darker reason for wishing a parent dead: the pain of continuing to deal with a parent who always was and continues to be verbally and emotionally abusive, controlling or relentlessly critical.
In that case, it's best to seek counseling to work out your own feelings about your parent and endeavor to change the dynamic while you still can, while the parent is still living. Once a parent is gone, the hope that the relationship can change for the better dies with them. Perhaps changing the dynamics of your relationship will never be possible. But you can work through and resolve some of your own feelings so that you can feel more at peace with yourself and your parent at the end of his or her life.
Letting bitterness and anger linger unresolved through a parent's last years and death can erode the soul and lead to continuing unhappiness long after the parent is gone.
When our parents are in decline, there is so much that comes up as past, present and future converge. We mourn the loss of their youth and vitality, even as we feel our own beginning to wane. We may feel a mixture of fear and tenderness as our roles begin to reverse and we become the caregivers of those who took such loving care of us -- or not -- all those years ago. And, in their decline, we catch a glimpse of our own future -- and feel the temptation to flinch and look away.
But perhaps we can best cope with a parent's decline by admitting our pain and frustration to ourselves and then accepting our ailing parent on his or her own terms, sharing the moment and entering their reality with a loving and generous heart.
It can be a challenge.
It isn't always possible.
But when we can manage, even briefly, to be fully present with an ailing parent, it can mean lovely moments shared in the midst of sadness and decline.
Alzheimer's is slowly taking my dear friend Tim's mother away. But, in the meantime, when their hearts meet in the here and now, life still can have its good moments. When he visited her at her assisted living facility recently, she was beaming with pride and cradling imaginary twin babies in her arms, to the consternation of staff who were trying to get her to eat lunch. She frowned when one told her that there were no babies.
Tim smiled gently at his mother, imagining a time when she had held him and his twin brother Tom so tenderly. And he said "Those are such beautiful babies. You must be so proud. I'm so happy for you. Why don't we make a special bed in that bureau drawer over there for them so that you can get some rest and eat lunch? You need to keep up your strength to take care of those beautiful babies."
She passed the imaginary babies to him and he pulled out the drawer, softly smoothing the linens in there so the babies would be comfortable.
Then he turned to his mother, took her hand, and they looked at each other with love that transcended years and infirmity, a love that made the moment poignant, memorable and ever-lasting.