[Editor’s Note: This was a very personal story of inviting my father-in-law to live with us during the last year of his life. It was also probably the best writing I did for the blog all year. This article was originally published on January 26, 2011.]
The following is a personal story that is meant to illustrate what it is like to be part of the “sandwich generation” — a growing part of the American population that is caring for young children and elderly adults at the same time.
My father-in-law, Ken, suffered from some sort of dementia and had been declining since at least 2006. His particular illness was also accompanied by significant physical decline.
Last December, he had a fall and was in a rehab facility in Lexington, MA. Because of circumstances, it looked like he was going to go into a nursing home. My wife and I were discussing this, and I articulated the question that was going around in her head. “Could we have him come live with us in Vermont?” We talked it through and decided that yes, we could have him come to Vermont. On December 4, 2009, we brought him home. Over time, we got him hooked up with a senior day-program, we had a couple of folks come in during the week to help out, etc. We created a “web of support” for him.
There really weren’t any Wilfred Brimley intergenerational “Hallmark” moments. No Morrie Schwartz-esque wise aphorisms. No, not really. It was a long slog.
But, in hindsight, Ken was able to live the final year of his life with dignity, becoming part of our lives. He went to 5 concerts at the kids’ elementary school. We took him to church every week (which was important to him). We went to the lake with him and had dinner with him, our family, and often others in our town, probably 30-40 times over the summer. And in August, we actually worked it out so he could take a swim in the lake safely. We took him to the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, MA at least twice.
Even though I was there, it is hard to imagine dealing with an illness that systematically takes so much away from a person: from not being able to drive, to not being able to do woodworking, not using a computer, not being able to turn on a television set, not being able to dress, not being able to shave, not being able to brush your teeth, and needing assistance every time you sat down or stood up.
Over Thanksgiving, Ken went into the hospital. His decline was becoming more rapid, and we needed to get him a work up, probably in preparation for moving to a nursing home. The doctors didn’t find anything specific, but he still wasn’t improving. According to his wishes, we asked the hospital to only give him comfort care. Then on Sunday, Carol and I visited him — he was sleeping and seemed peaceful. We asked the nurses to call us if his condition changed. Later that evening, the call came. His breathing was getting shallower. My wife went down to be with him. She held his hand and called her siblings so that they could tell him they loved him (even as he slept.) She was dozing in the chair beside his bed when his breathing changed again. She held his hand as he took his last breath peacefully. Ken died with his daughter holding his hand.
Even with the steady decline and increased dependence, Ken lived the last year of his life with an amazing amount of grace and dignity. He lost so much, but never lost himself. I am proud of him for that.
To end on a lighter note, when we brought Ken to the ER, a nurse was transferring him from the wheelchair to the bed. She said, “I’m going to put my arms around your middle, and I want to put your arms around my neck.” Without missing a beat, Ken said with a slight chuckle, “That could be interesting.” 🙂
No doubt we live in a clumsy old world — unfair, reckless, chaotic — but we also can live amazing, interconnected, beautiful, even graceful lives in spite of it all!