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My occupation is ‘caregiver’; my identity is ‘son’

At 89, my dad was a stubborn force of nature. He had been taking care of my mother at home for some 14 years. Mom was also 89, had been Dad’s wife for 66 years, and she was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the early years, my father was completely on his own: driving, shopping, cooking, managing the household, and providing intimate, hands-on care for Mom.

It took several years of continuous cajoling from my brother and me until Dad finally agreed to hire an aide to at least help him in the mornings. Inevitably, within just a few years, as my mother declined, his needs expanded and he seemed to be running a mini-nursing home for one patient, with a staff of seven helpers on random hourly shifts that got him through the week. However, he never had overnight help, and he never scheduled anyone at all during lunch and dinnertime, which were his only private, and perhaps sacred, times alone with Mom.

Then quite suddenly the rug got pulled out from under him; literally. He was brushing his teeth one night, the bathroom mat slipped, and he fell flat on his back. (Yes, the aides had warned him it was slippery and removed it every morning; and yes, he replaced it every night.) Rather than press the Life Alert button dangling around his neck that was there for moments precisely like this one, he opted to lie there for quite some time, and then somehow managed to crawl back to bed.

As it turned out, he had fractured his spine.

But my father was and is seemingly indestructible. The broken spine was nothing that a little physical therapy and wearing a back brace couldn’t fix, and roughly six weeks later, Dad was fully recovered, driving again, managing his own life, and we gratefully celebrated his 90th birthday.

Then sadly, only days later on my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary, Dad tried to carry an assortment of loose groceries up the stairs without holding onto the banister, and though the food somehow made it up to the kitchen, Dad went plummeting down the steps, landed on his head, unconscious, and suffered a near-fatal, Traumatic Brain Injury.

Overnight, my wife and I dropped our lives and moved into their house, and I essentially had to become my Dad, and I was both overwhelmed and awestruck at the enormity of the task he had been doing on his own. For one thing, he had seven aides with seven fee scales, seven different paydays, and paid from four separate checking accounts. Yet as a former mathematical maven, his system had obviously made total sense to him.

It took my wife and I ten arduous months of living and working there full time to finally get on top of the myriad functions my Dad had been handling on his own at the age of 90! Utterly exhausted, we found overnight aides that we loved and trusted enough to finally allow us to move out.

Today, Dad and Mom are 91, still home, and in several months will celebrate their 69th anniversary, although Mom won’t know it and Dad may or may not fully grasp it. Yet I’m quite aware of how blessed and lucky our family has been because of the financial resources my Dad earned in order to afford what we can now provide for them. We are among the lucky ones.

As for me, I used to have an identity as a “writer,” most recently of a book designed for the dementia patient, entitled Blue Sky, White Clouds. Now, whenever I am asked to fill out my “occupation,” I stop and think; because despite everything else I’ve ever done in my 63 years, it seems that at this point, my only legitimate, current job in life is to manage a private “memory unit” for two.

My occupation is “caregiver.”

My identity is “son.”