The Importance of Family Planning at the End of Life
Guest Column by Lauree Purcell
Editor’s Note: The second in a two-part series on “Families and Aging” by Lauree Purcell. She has written for Another Way previously. A former city planner, Lauree and her husband, Steve, are parents of two teenage daughters and are members of a Methodist church.
Last time I wrote about the positive changes that my family embraced as my parents decided to move nearby in order for us all to spend more time together. My father now has advanced Parkinson’s disease.
My mother and I have been holding vigil for several days and have found great comfort in singing to him from a hymnal.
When my parents first relocated here, my husband and daughters spent a lot of time with them. But the pace of my life with my kids and husband has sped up just as my parents’ life has had to slow down significantly due to Dad’s illness. My husband is enjoying an increasingly interesting professional life, while my older daughter is enjoying her senior year of high school and her best season on the track and cross country teams. She’s also focused on getting ready to go to college.
My 12-year-old loves to cook, bake, and shop with me. She also loves having her friends over to hang out while I am home. I serve snacks and often make up the air mattress for sleepovers. Weaving my parents into all this busyness is sometimes challenging. So I often do things alone with my parents when my family is busy at school. Then we occasionally all get together for a meal. My brother and I have also taken a few trips alone with my parents.
Amid these changes and daily life, it’s important to get all the necessary paperwork regarding parents’ care in order before it’s too late. As my father’s abilities declined, it became clear that we were going to need some help and would need to start making some decisions for his care. But when we inquired about hiring help, we discovered that nothing could be done for him without his signature unless he had given my mother financial power of attorney to make decisions for him. Getting his signature on that legal document wasn’t easy. He has always been the decision maker in our family. After many days of discussion, he agreed to sign the paperwork. That document was one of the last papers he was able to sign. Seeing the importance of this document, my mother gave me power of attorney for her financial affairs.
In recent months, as Dad has been in a steep decline, we have been thankful for the many organizations in our community available to help families in our situation. We started taking Dad to an adult day care center several days each week. It wasn’t a perfect fit because most of the planned activities occur in the mornings and my mother had too much trouble getting my dad bathed, dressed, and fed to get him there much before noon.
But Dad did enjoy meeting the friendly staff and participants there, and it was an uplifting change of pace that gave my mom a few hours to accomplish other necessary tasks. We tried having a caregiver come in to help with dinner and bathe Dad and get him to bed. But he didn’t want a stranger undressing him, so that didn’t work. In recent weeks, we tried some new exercises with Dad and encouraged him to use his rolling walker. But in mid-February he fell out of his chair when trying to stand and spent two days in the hospital. He has ended up in nursing care at a retirement community. We were fortunate to quickly find a bed for him in a nice facility because caring for him at home when he had no strength to sit up was quite challenging.
As I write this, he is now resting comfortably in his new setting but is unresponsive for the most part. My mother and I have been holding vigil for several days and have found great comfort in singing to him from a hymnal we found in the chapel. The staff provided us pillows and blankets so I can stay with him through the night in a recliner. I’m happy we can take this journey together and face each new challenge as it comes, but I wish he had signed a living will. My mother and I are choosing to keep him comfortable while letting him die naturally because of the extensive decline in his mental and physical abilities that we have experienced with him over many months. Perhaps technology could prolong his life, but it could not increase its quality. By choosing to sign a living will when he was healthy, he could have spared my mother making such a difficult decision for him now.
I hope my experience will benefit others in a similar situation. I’m happy my parents cared enough about our relationship to move near me when it was clear our time was running out. We gradually changed our routines to make room for almost daily, positive experiences together. I had to be flexible and willing to try different things to figure out how I could be most helpful to them. While my daughters and husband wanted to spend some time with my parents, I learned to give them options to do other things while my parents and I did what we needed to do. I was careful to continue pursuing many of my own interests and to make my husband and kids a high priority even as I spent more time with Mom and Dad.
There is a lot of paperwork involved in aging that is beneficial to go ahead and sign before you get sick. When a loved one becomes disabled, there are sometimes many options for getting help. Since it is difficult to know what will work best for your family until you give various options a try, it is best not to wait too long to gather necessary information about the options and consider them seriously. This is important family planning at the other end of life.
For a free folder, “Loving Legacy,” that helps families document some of the decisions we all face in aging or as our parents age, write to Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802 or MelodieD@MennoMedia.org