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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Jonathan Rauch: Letting Go of My Father

In this month's Atlantic, a very poignant essay by gay scholar and author Jonathan Rauch about the overwhelming task of caring for a helpless, elderly parent - a subject I suppose many of us can relate to, or have faced, or will face.  An excerpt:
Broaching the subject and confessing desperation was like uttering the password to a secret brotherhood of beleaguered, overwhelmed, weary, or sometimes just resigned adult caregivers. But the sect seemed ashamed to be seen.

As I reached my own breaking point, two things happened. First, my father caught sight of my distress. He would not accept assisted living on his own account, but when I told him that he was already in assisted living but that I was the assistance; that I was overwhelmed, underqualified, and barely hanging on emotionally; that I wanted to be his son again, not a nurse and nag and adversary—when I told him all that, and when his sister and the social worker chimed in, he acceded. He was still, after all, my father, and it was still his job, he understood, to care for me. Second, the inevitable happened. As his disease overtook him, not even he could deny his incapacity. And so he moved, reluctantly, to a nearby assisted-living place, which gave me the help I needed and, to no one’s surprise but his own, gave my father more rather than less independence. Another phase of the story then unfolded, ending with his death in December. His last gesture to me, so very characteristic, was to wave me away. He wanted me to go on with my life rather than hover by his bedside.

I did go on, but I emerged from the whole experience not a little indignant. The medical infrastructure for elder care in America is good, very good. But the cultural infrastructure is all but nonexistent. How can it be that so many people like me are so completely unprepared for what is, after all, one of life’s near certainties?

I would only add, the "medical infrastructure for elder care" might be "very good" in Washington, D.C. - but that, too, is all but nonexistent in smaller cities and rural communities across this country. Unless you have lots of money, of course. I cared for my dear mother for her last ten years of declining health, and it was just hell on wheels, boys, the crappy, indifferent care from doctors and hospitals - and no way to get her any home health care at all. Just me, and nobody else to help.

Pretty damn rough, let me tell you.


dave said...

I can empathize with this. Very very hard - but very real.

Nikolaos said...

I helped (though my sister did most of the work, to be fair) with my father's final illness. How much I loved him then! Brave, phlegmatic, concerned for our welfare, not his, worried about my mother and about how we would cope after he was gone.

Indeed. He's been dead now these 16 years, but I think of him often.

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