I watch my father; lost and pale, as he’s surrendered to the care of strangers. His legs are like brittle twigs, easily broken. Once a man who filled a room, solid and imposing. Now he hardly makes a dent on the hospital bed. Ours has been a fraught relationship, marred by high expectations on my part, dissembling on his. As he ages, he regards me with the same blend of defiance and deference as my mother, the wife he separated from 25 years ago.
My 72-year-old father had a stroke in early 2018. He also has diabetes. Now he’s in hospital due to complications of the disease and has had his leg amputated below the knee. My 77-year-old mother has a debilitating lung complaint — not pneumonia, not cancer — but doctors can’t figure out exactly what it is. Both are ageing badly, when they’re still relatively young.
I alleviated the worry of moving interstate by having my father live with us on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. We are originally from Sydney. I never thought I would live with a parent for an entire decade. For many years he helped with child, dog, domestic and work wrangling. Now, he’s unable to contribute. And as many of our elderly become; he’s at times stubborn and resistant to change. He is set in his ways, and enjoys the daily routines of comfort and familiarity.
Having him in the home assuages guilt and shores up my sense of duty. But it can also breed resentment, frustration and at times the shameful, weary refrain: Is theirs a life worth living?
I don’t want to clean up his vomit. I don’t want to urge him to eat proper food. I don’t want to scrub the toilet after he’s had an accident. Don’t want to lift and manipulate his body. But why should a stranger have to?
Having him in the home assuages guilt and shores up my sense of duty. But it can also breed resentment.
Life expectancy in Australia has increased. My paternal Australian grandparents died when I was in primary school. My maternal Greek grandfather died when I was three. That was the norm in the previous generation. People lived out their Biblical three-score-and-ten, give or take. My Greek grandmother bucked the trend by living to 105. My daughter knew her great-grandmother well; a feisty, illiterate woman who kept her wits about her until the very end. There are more centenarians alive than ever before. The elderly live longer these days, yet at the same time they exist in an artificial state of medications, doctor’s appointments and naps. They end their days in a drugged haze.
In Greek culture, the elderly traditionally stay at home. The responsibility of looking after them falls to unmarried daughters: it’s patriarchy in action. My aunt cared for my grandmother for 30 years. Now she cares for my mother’s every need. She shops and cooks, goes with her to appointments, fusses over her with a fervour that can sometimes test my mother’s patience. None of us expect our parents to linger on, sick and frail, for decades. We fervently wish that we won’t.
The burden of looking after me as I decline is not one I want to place on my child. There are extreme emotional, physical and financial costs to caring for parents. Many times, it becomes a legal battle between siblings for inheritance or simple recognition for all the work they’ve put in. Other times, the burden is shouldered by one child. My older sister died in 2010; all decisions fall to me. It can be a lonely and frightening path.
Right now, whatever I do won’t be enough. But I’m doing all I can.
Before my father went to hospital, our household had three generations living under one roof. Idyllic, you might say. Exemplary. Or, a constant juggle of competing needs, demands, challenges and the rare balm of patience and compassion. Right now, whatever I do won’t be enough. But I’m doing all I can.
In this journey toward the endpoint, we all — young and old — need to embrace uncertainty. We need to accept this as if we had chosen it wholeheartedly. Mostly, we haven’t chosen this at all. It’s been thrust upon us. We also need to forgive the past; a stumbling block for me. Yet I acknowledge that this painful, awkward, frustrating moment, right now, is all we’ll ever have together.
Since last week my father has been in a nursing home. He’s far too young to be in one, and perhaps his stay won’t be forever. He is stronger now than when he entered hospital, fitter in the upper body, well-nourished, and has a fervent will to be independent in his wheelchair. I feel an overwhelming burden: to do my best by him and to honour his wishes. I see my own mortality catching up with me, in the shadows of early evening, in the play of light and dark through nursing home curtains.
Perhaps the hardest thing about witnessing our parents sick, ageing and dying is seeing ourselves in them.
Katerina Cosgrove is a writer. You can follow Katerina on Twitter @katcosgrove.