Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Helicopter Daughtering

Trying to keep my elderly father’s brain young is making mine feel old. Attending to his schedule of stimulation and enrichment is downgrading my own. Dates, times, activities and appointments spew out for the weeks ahead. Forget helicopter parenting, I am quickly mastering the art of helicopter daughtering. However, with the festive season fast approaching, activities are winding down for the year, propelling me into a spin.

Keeping abreast of my dad’s busy schedule fulfills many roles: to spark his social life, prevent no shows and significantly premature shows - all challenges associated with early Alzheimer’s and short-term memory loss.

I am now a scheduling maven. Quick Draw McGraw ain’t got nothing on me! Dentist? Sure. Periodontist or general? This Thursday or next Thursday?  This week’s an ‘on’ week at the local community centre, whilst next week is an ‘off’ week. My email inbox brims with newsletters from community centres as well as activities and appointments for the weeks ahead.  Google clearly has me pegged as a middle class male in the 65 plus age group, as my pop up feed bursts with the very latest offerings in luxury residential aged care.

Like a guardian angel, I hover at a distance, trying to maximize his day-to-day life satisfaction, safeguarding him from any impending disasters. I map out his schedule, balancing enrichment and stimulation.  Under stimulated. Over stimulated.  It all amounts to the same thing.  An irascible octogenarian.

To preserve half-century friendships I orchestrate ‘play’ dates. Shouting into the telephone receiver to family friends who have known me as my father’s daughter their whole lives, I introduce myself time and again, enquiring about their health and news of the family. Hearing hesitation at their end, I quickly add that my dad’s failure to communicate can be explained by his Russian roulette approach to dialing numbers.  You never quite know what to expect. Another pregnant pause, amidst a whir of cognitive and/or auditory processing. I do hope they want to have a ‘play’ date and haven’t ditched my dad for another friend.  Or could it be they are still trying to ascertain who I am?

Yet on occasion I pat myself on the back, immensely satisfied at being able to arrange a lunch, afternoon tea or 5.30pm dinner. Well in theory anyway. In practice, anything can and does happen. Confusion about days, a last minute medical emergency, or even the totally unanticipated.  An arrangement with Herbert X, muddled with Herbert Y, resulting in unadulterated chaos for everyone.

My favorite activities are senior’s day trips. More time for me (no, I didn’t really write that. You must have just overheard that mischievous voice in my head). So when dad informed me he was joining the local community group’s day trip to Healesville, I was delighted.  A great opportunity to share a few laughs with whomever he was seated next to on the coach, enjoy some crisp country air, and the added bonus - a hot lunch. Did I mention it was for a whole day, returning at 5pm?

The night before the Healesville outing, dad called, warning me that he’d be out the whole day. Excellent, a whole day to myself! I started skipping a mini happy dance. At 2.00pm the phone rings.
“Dad, you’re back early.  Did you have a nice time…?”
“Yes, we had an interesting tour of the city.” 
But you were supposed to go to Healesville.
“I don’t think so. It was Melbourne CBD.”

Even the best helicopter daughter can’t control everything. The poor man had unwittingly joined the second tour option, the Balwyn Blokes city tour. The upshot of short-term memory loss is that by day’s end, he had totally forgotten about the scones he’d been promised in picturesque Healesville, and was quite content with a sandwich in the hubbub of the city.

Now, with Xmas and the New Year fast approaching next month’s calendar is looking particularly spartan. I count in my head five whole weeks until Term 1 activities resume. Noooo!!! My festive streak is quickly fading. What will happen to his weekly routine? I’m not selfless. What will happen to my weekly routine? I’m so used to days beginning with his call; “So, what’s on today?” and happily relaying the agenda de jour. What will I do?  He needs to socialize with people his own age (give or take a decade!)

I am like a puppet without strings.  No activities. In this season of good cheer, how will I uphold my dad’s good cheer? A feeling of dread slowly rises.  My pulse quickens and anxiety levels surge. We are both going cold turkey. And here was I beginning to question whether being a helicopter daughter was all that it was hyped up to be. I relish the opportunity to resume control again. Bring it on!  I think I’m a natural.  

Monday, 17 August 2015

A lesson on living in the present

The phone rings before I have had the chance to savour my first cup of coffee.  “What’s happening today?” asks the raspy voice on the other end of the phone. “Are we doing something? Is anyone coming around?”  

These brief conversations with my father have slipped into our morning routines, like a bookmark delineating the start of our days, providing an opportunity to imbue the day ahead with love, joy, warmth and laughter.  From the depths of the corny chamber of my brain, I try to find some witty banter to infuse into our conversation. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t.

As a General Practitioner for more than half a century, my father’s working days were mapped out into 15-minute intervals.  Adherence to this strict timetable continued after hours, with the loving assistance of his German-born wife.   Weekday or weekend, breakfast was always at 7.30am. Dinner precisely 6.30pm, whilst bedtime was never past 10pm, but with a caveat. There was always an unconditional window for reading. Growing up, the golden rule was that if you did not arrive at least a few minutes early, you were late.

In my parent’s house, going with the flow, merely meant a river running downstream. This was aptly demonstrated by the annual calendar, where colour-coded reminders mapped out the year’s events long before New Years was even a passing thought. Overseas trips were planned and organised with military precision, whilst itineraries were distributed to every family member, so we too could follow their giddying journey, hour-by-hour, day-by-day.

Eyes were always on the destination, with no allowance for casual deviations. Who knows what we missed out on? If it wasn’t planned, it didn’t happen.

Since then, things have changed and along the way, my father has unwittingly lost this narrative. All notions of planning have been left stranded somewhere along his lengthy journey of life. Yet, his newly unstructured lifestyle of living in the present has not been met with the opposition and resistance that I would have expected.  Instead, Dad has developed a Zen-like state of inner calm and acceptance.

At times it’s hard to imagine that the youthful version of this same man wore a watch, seemingly etched onto his wrist pronouncing every second that made up every minute of his day.  

As a devotee of mindfulness, you would think I’d be at one with his twilight transformation. Yet a growing frequency of not being at home when he says he will be, or not bothering to answer the phone because “I didn’t feel like it” leaves me nursing frazzled nerves. His newly found laissez-faire attitude and timeless existence extends to calls from medical receptionists, not really knowing what to do with him when he arrives anything from three hours to one week early for an appointment.

Obviously my father’s lifetime allocation of planning is clearly exhausted. We joke about how he has grown up in his old age.  He does what he feels like, when he feels like doing it.  Walks are now mini adventures, guided by his weathered internal compass, not a clock. It may lead to an unexpected coffee stop where he marvels at a toddler sipping a baby-chino, or to the local cinema where, for better or worse, he watches whatever happens to be screening. 

My previously time efficient father now eats when he’s hungry, sleeps when he’s tired and doesn’t force his eyelids to stay open any longer than they need to.

In fact, he is as committed to abiding to this non-time schedule as he was to keeping to time in his previous life. His newfound timeless ignorance is for the most part a blessing; well for him in any case. If however, you do happen to see him, whatever you do, please don’t tell him that he has become new age.  He’d be absolutely mortified!

Monday, 1 June 2015

Role Reversal

I step into his isolated, lost and increasingly confused world and am immediately submerged into a different space and time.  A lived-in time warp, another dimension seemingly hovering somewhere between universes.  The many household clocks tell a different time, but none the right one.  Once a fastidious timekeeper, these inconsistencies are all the more bewildering. 

Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band is playing, but after a while my numbed brain registers that it has been playing over and over and over and over again. I hasten over to the CD player and flick the switch from repeat to shuffle.  If only everything could be as easily rectified with the singular motion of pushing a single, solitary button. The external pulse of the Beatles superficially masks the somber beats pulsating from within. Yet no matter how loud and up-tempo the external music is, the effect is ephemeral.  As soon as it stops, the internal beat sways to a sad slow waltz. So the music keeps playing, and playing and playing.  It has to.

Tonight’s the night that the baton will be unobtrusively passed from parent to child in the presence of a third party, the family accountant. I feel like an intruder, that I’m prying. I don’t really want to be here, I’m just the ‘baby of the family’. I want everything to be taken care of, just like it used to be. Yet with my feet seemingly still affixed to the ground I am being pushed and shoved into assuming a new household leadership role. 

At some level I can’t help but feel disrespectful, but deep down I know I am doing what I have to do, responding to my dad’s unvoiced cry for help.  He just can’t manage.  Dollars and cents are like sand through an hourglass, where increasingly there is less and less differentiation between the two, and zeros amount to that exact sum: nothing. 

From the other side of the dining table his penetrating gaze swiftly envelops me. Eyes that have seen so much convey his understandable reticence to move aside to allow for those with more spritely grey cells to assume a degree of autonomy never previously shared. What used to be a secret, talked about in whispers behind closed doors, is now laid out for all to see.  

The sum of many years of devoted hard work and an unwavering commitment to a meaningful career are now condensed to numeric form. Previously rich anecdotes and daily oral accounts of life are now compartmentalized to sketchy, faint and hazy memories, often voiced at inopportune moments.

I would love to be able to bring back his competencies, his sense of self, but this I cannot do. I must stick with the practical and leave the emotions to one side, but as an emotional being, I struggle.  I can’t truly relinquish the overwhelming feelings that a role reversal necessarily entails.  Perhaps at some level I convince myself that I do not want to, as if that happens I may become a little less human, a little less compassionate, a little less sensitive to another person’s sense of loss.

Whether my dad vocalizes it or not, his look encapsulates the outcome that I had hoped to see. I got his blessing, and what daughter could ask for anymore?

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Welcome to The Dad Files

This blog intimately addresses some of the challenging and pertinent aspects of my relationship with my father following the loss of a much-loved life long partner, the onset of dementia and the ensuing life changes that such transformations bring.  I believe that this blog will appeal to anyone out there who is grappling with the blurring of roles from child to carer, and for all those who are fortunate enough to truly love, and be loved by one’s parents. This is a dedicated blog about a father/daughter relationship.  My other blog on wellbeing, laughter and happiness can be viewed at LaughLife blogThe first entry that I would like to share was originally published in the Weekend Australian.
“My stomach silently trembles with ripples of anxiety. This will be the first time he has gone away on his own, in this new chapter of life.

I hope he will be OK, that people will be kind and inclusive, perhaps offering him a seat beside them or welcoming him into their conversation. I hope he makes a good impression, not embarrassing himself in the company of strangers.
He doesn’t have to get along with everyone, but one easy friendship would be wonderful.
His bag is perched on the couch and has been there for the entire week, with only minor changes to its shapely form.

I wonder whether he has sufficient pairs of socks, enough warm clothes or enough cool clothes. And, of course, clean underwear, precluding any need for an emergency hand wash.
Independence is to be highly valued, so I don’t want to seem too interfering. I watch from a distance, subtly channelling my concerns in as delicate a fashion as I can manage. Yet I want to maximise his chances of a happy and fulfilling trip, filled with good memories and as little stress as is humanly possible.
Not everything can be left to chance, so after some hesitation, I call the tour company voicing my concerns, trying to find out everything I can. The calm and pleasant voice on the other end of the phone is very reassuring, and as I place the receiver down I heave a huge sigh of relief. He will be in good hands.
It is now the night before the big day. The countdown is drawing to an end and a new one about to begin. I sense in him an underlying anxiety, which I don’t think I am imagining or projecting on to him.
I reassure him, telling him this will be great for him and, if worst comes to worst, it’s only a week.
Overcome with emotion, my brain doesn’t even have time to process that tears have begun streaming down my face. I didn’t think I would cry but I just can’t help it. I am so grateful he can’t see me in this state. He can’t. We don’t even share the same house, although for many years we did.
I wish him a good night and wonderful week ahead, once again reminding him to take his mobile phone. What a strange and unsettling feeling watching him go away on his own.
I hope all will be OK, that this will have been a good decision. I have to relinquish my feelings of concern.
Before losing his wife after almost 60 years, holidays had been defined by joint experiences and shared memories.
I need to step back and accept that this is his journey and I can only watch from a distance. Safe travels, Dad”.
Signing off with love,