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Assisting My Father to Better Living

Written by Marci Garson

By Marci Garson

When I called my father on his 89th birthday, he was too busy to talk- he was working out in the Assisted Living choicesgym.  When I visited him a few months later, he took me to a hometown bar in downtown Frederick, Maryland- clarinet in tow- and proceeded to jam into the night with a band of musicians barely half his age.

Music is not my Dad’s only passion; a microbiologist, he invented the original typhoid vaccine in 1971.  He had been fit, determined and disciplined until a mini stroke took the wind out of his sails; wind he needed to blow his beloved horn.

For the next three years my father spent his days reclining in his big leather easy chair, lights dim, TV glaring a monotony of mindless shows.  I thought he was just waiting to die, but Dad insisted he was content - as long as he had his wife, Lilly, to take care of him and his favorite chair to keep him comfortable. 

Still, my sister and I begged the couple to move into assisted living where they would be surrounded by people and could participate in as many activities as they wanted.  Most importantly, they would be safe- after all how long can an 86 year-old woman take care of a man of 93?  But Dad was adamant.  He wanted to stay in his own home.

And then she fell.  Lilly was no longer able to take care of Lilly, let alone Dad. I frantically searched the Internet, and soon got quite an education on “retirement homes”.  I learned the difference between Independent Living and Assisted Living.  The former helps residents gain the skills necessary to live on their own, while the latter is designed to help those with special needs who cannot live alone.

Most places have waiting lists than can run up to three or more years, but luckily I was able to find Dad a studio that opened up to a living room complete with a couch, club chairs and an armoire with a TV.  Dad could share this space with three other people, or he could close the door to his bedroom for complete privacy. I had to check with his accountant to make sure that my father could afford the $5600 he would have to pay every month – even more once Lilly was well enough to join him.  Still, the rent includes all utilities, three meals a day, housekeeping, and a round the clock medical staff to administer all medication as well as help with showering- something my Dad had not done in three days.

When I looked into my father’s eyes and explained how his life was about to change forever, I saw fear and confusion: this from a man I have always respected and at times even feared.  Yet when we visited this idyllic development on the outskirts of town, with a backdrop of mountains and fields dotted with grazing cows, and were warmly welcomed by an onslaught of staff and residents, I knew we were doing the right thing.  There was life and energy here.

My sister and I flanked our father, arm in arm, as he shuffled down the aisle to his new digs. I had already set up his room with twin beds, like he had had in his apartment, with matching comforters, bed skirts and shams.  We hung paintings on the walls and lined the dresser with family photos.  We even brought his clarinet in hopes that the physical therapy we had scheduled might help him regain enough strength to play his music once again.  And yes, we brought his chair, but secretly hoped he wouldn’t have much time to recline.

Now it was time for me to go home, back to New York, but when I called Dad the next day his voice was stronger than I had heard it in years.  He told me he already made friends with a woman named Louise and was sitting with her in the dining room (look out Lilly!)  He also informed me that he could see a personal trainer for free twice a week.  So perhaps when I call Dad to wish him Happy Birthday this year, he will be too busy to talk. Perhaps he will be in the gym!! 

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