In your history of observing your own aging parents or the parents of friends, or even elderly strangers, I challenge you to match this story for courage. Find a better role model and tell me all about him or her.
In your own experience, can you remember an older adult who took care of himself and his family by relieving them of the struggle during the inevitable transition from independence to any sort of assisted living?
I’ll bet not.
What we hear over time is the familiar story of a proud and independent person who finds himself in a situation he knew was coming, but never wanted to be. And in spite of the inevitability of the circumstance, that person will engage in an emotional battle with himself and his family, resisting the changes mandated by the passage of time and the impermanence of flesh and bone.
We hear of strong-willed and intelligent people abandoning their own stated principles. After a lifetime of claiming the right to self-determination, they oblige saddened and distraught family members to step in and make the clear choices for them that, barring dementia, they could make themselves.
Rather than making their own decision to hand over the car keys, for example, they will continue to drive after accidents and near-misses and the admonitions of physicians present evidence enough of the need for change. They tussle and brawl and hang on to the thing they know they must let go. In so doing they force their family members into the roles of conspirators and thieves.
But not my father-in-law, Mr. Lloyd B. Plath, aged 95.
A year ago he fell in his beloved home up on the hill in Danville.
This was his home on Kuss Road just below the historic Eugene O’Neill residence. The home his wife of 55 years designed and he built. The home where he raised three children and loved multiple pets. The home with stairs to get in and stairs to get out and stairs between levels inside. The one with a sweeping view of the San Ramon Valley and Mt. Diablo where he’d been living alone since his wife died in 1998.
He tried to get up and fell again. He lay on the floor for sometime recovering his strength and thinking about the phase of life that had come to meet him that morning.
Then he did get up.
He called his sons and said, “I think it’s time for me to sell this house and move into some place more reasonable.”
Wow. What brought this on? Sure we had all been thinking about those stairs and those levels and the life he’d led in that house. But we hadn’t broached the subject straight on. We had only tiptoed around the idea.
“Oh, I had a fall this morning.”
He wouldn’t hear of living with any of us “kids,” so we sold the big house. We moved him to the flatlands and a one level apartment on the ground floor. He adapted just like that. Chuckled and insisted he liked it. Enjoyed his new neighbors and their comings and goings. They quickly found affection for him too.
In March he mentioned his long-time friend got a great deal on a place with some jazzy amenities. He got all his meals and laundry and housecleaning services. Medical attention. It was pretty nice Lloyd said. We knew he had never been much for planning meals or shopping or cleaning or serving himself.
Lots of stuff going on in that place, Lloyd said; people to meet. No kidding. We looked at that place and a couple others like it.
Then he fell in his new apartment. And he fell again.
It is hard to see him diminished. He is wobbly and cannot walk much at all. His eyesight is failing, maybe due to a small stroke.
We know what all this means. As does he. So he told us to get him set up in assisted living. And we did - because he told us to.
He remains in charge of his life. We are his loving and humbled servants.
I only hope when it’s my turn I will be so brave.