My Dad asked me to stop by his house and drop off his mail. “Just use your key and leave the mail on my chair.” He asked. So, on my way into town last Friday, that’s what I did. Nothing unusual about that.
However, this is the first time I’ve used the key he gave me – and it’s probably the first time I’ve been in his house without him there. I took the opportunity to look around. I felt a little sad, a little nostalgic, a little pity/compassion, and a little sad.
Several times in my EMS career, I’ve treated patients in their home, loaded them into the ambulance, and sent them off to the hospital. Often, I was not the lead paramedic, so I was left behind to clean up the mess and chaos. Medication boxes, IV disposables, and other assorted messes we make when we are busy treating someone in the midst of a medical crisis. Indeed, someone must lock up and secure the home too.
I remember a man with a lot of clocks. The first time we saw him in his 30×30 studio apartment of a house – which was a little bigger than the place my Dad is currently living in – I was struck by the many clocks. They were in various states of working order. Some completely disassembled, and others working quite well – then everything in-between. It was a striking scene, and appeared to be a great hobby.
On that particular day, this gentleman was clearly having an MI – or, as you might say it, a heart attack. I was the lead paramedic that day, and we treated him with efficiency and kindness. Although his condition was serious, I assured him he’d be OK.
About a week later we were called back to the same house for similar symptoms – chest pain and shortness of breath. As we walked into his home, I immediately sensed that things were different. My first clue was that the house was in disarray. And with a quick glance, I could see that all of the clocks had stopped – even the ones that were previously working. Then I saw the eyes of this nice elderly man. There was a fear and concern that wasn’t there before. I did not have a good feeling about his condition, and after an assessment of his vital signs and EKG, I knew that he was most likely coming to the end of his life.
It wasn’t my turn to be the lead paramedic, but because of my previous contact with him, I took the lead. Mostly however, I sat on the coffee table next to his chair, held his hand, and talked with him. The rest of the team took care of the assessment and treatment tasks. As we put him into the back of the ambulance, my partner climbed in to ride with him – in case his condition should deteriorate en-route to the hospital emergency department. I was left to clean up.
When I went back into his house, I was really struck by the stopped clocks. After cleaning up our disposables, checking to make sure the oven and dryer were off, and turning off some lights, I stood at the doorway for a minute just taking in the home. For some reason I had forged a relationship with this patient. We only met twice, and we hardly spoke, but we seemed to convey volumes through our eye contact. And now, just before I locked up his house, I surveyed the scene. Disarray, stopped clocks, and emptiness. My heart was heavy, for I had a sense that he would never come home again. And, unfortunately, I was right. He died the next day.
I’ve had twinges of those feelings about my Dad lately. It isn’t a good feeling. It makes me want to cry.
My house, car, or office sometimes fall into disarray. I get busy, stressed, sick, or have to take care of some other priority in my life. But, I have the ability to bounce back and recover. There are situations, like the one we are in now, where it may take a couple of years (or so) to recover, but due to our health and resources, we are usually able to turn the situation around and pull out of the disarray.
It appears that my Dad, or any aging person for that matter, may at some point lose the ability to rebound. Of course it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s gradual. After my Dad’s stroke in 1998, my parents sold their retirement dream home in the Columbia Gorge. They knew they didn’t have the resources to maintain two homes anymore. Not too long after that, they sold their primary home in Tualatin, where they had lived for 20+ years, and moved into a manufactured home park. After my Mom developed cancer, they moved to Colorado so we could better care for them – again, they downsized their home. My Dad has continued to downsize since my Mom’s death four years ago; to the point where he’s now living in a 300 square foot, studio home.
His health continues to deteriorate, his car problems escalate, and his stuff discombobulates. It is hard to watch and even harder to know how to step in to help. I mean, he’s The Dad! He’s the one who is supposed to call the shots. My Dad has always been large and in charge. I’m not in charge, he is! However, my Dad is independent, stubborn, and clearly epitomizes the state of denial.
Several times over the past few weeks, I’ve had to rescue him from car problems. I don’t mind this, surely he has done more for me in my lifetime than I will ever be able to thank him for, or repay. I’ve had to loan him money, ignore cranky outbursts, and overlook dysfunctions that I once had hope of him overcoming. But as I stood in the middle of his house on Friday, I was overcome with a sense that this entropy will continue.
- We would like him to move into our home, but he fears a loss of independence.
- We would like him to eat with us more often, but he likes to watch TV when he eats.
- The Wife, already does my Dad’s laundry, but there is so much more we could do to help. He just is trying to protect his privacy and independence – which is understandable.
It’s difficult to watch. My Dad is not always making good choices. He bought a 15 year old car that continues to be a strain on his fixed income. He isn’t really cooking meals for himself and it appears he is living off of an unsteady diet of candy, coffee, and McDonald’s apple pies. The VA wants to do surgery on him, but they don’t seem to be taking in his medical issues in a holistic manner – it is more a shotgun approach to medicine. And sadly, his flowing river of a social life has dwindled to a trickle.
As I stood in his house on Friday, I had this sad sense of finality. I didn’t like it that feeling. I don’t like where this is going.