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Compassion Over Obligation

As you might have heard, I had to make a sudden and unexpected trip back to my motherland. 


That’s how it is with emergencies.


They hit hard and fast and disrupt your life. Even though my life in Florida still feels like complete unorganized chaos, I am in this transition phase where I can pivot instantly and put my tropical life on pause. 

Now as I sit here in a depressing Canadian hospital ‘cell,’ I am reflecting on how I went from feeling ‘obliged’ to care for an aging parent to being overwhelmed with gratitude and compassion with this honor.

My father ‘landed’ himself in the hospital …. I say that half pun intended. Anytime an elderly person falls, it can be devastating. 

 At the ripe old age cresting 88, dad struggles with a few health issues. The combination of dizziness, neuropathy, night time bathroom trips (we call nocturia in the medical world) and notably memory loss are a set up for falling especially at night. 


Since dad moved back to Canada, my sister has been his primary ‘caregiver’ and family member overseeing his needs. 


I joke that it is perfect to have a nurse in the family for this reason as they are trained caretakers. 

Us doctors on the other hand prefer giving orders and solving problems. 


As it happens, dad lived in the US for 7 years in the same small town as us.  


It was amazing to bond with him then. 


Because of his career, I didn’t see him as a child. He got to participate in my children’s lives, helping drive them to activities and school, watching sports and developing a relationship with his grandkids. 


Since dad was a widower and an introvert, there were times when I felt overwhelmed with being his  primary social outlet. After a series of significant medical  events and consequent health decline, the dependence grew.  

I felt that I was his sole source for his emotional support and the primary source of social interaction.As a physician, I naturally was trying to decipher some of his complex health issues and navigate the medical maze he was struggling with. 


I was never really bitter, but felt the needle was being pushed to the limit on boundaries not only in my personal life but in the expectations dad had versus what I could offer and try to manage my own career and life. 

 My parents had always been caretakers for my grandparents and I saw the struggles and obstacles that were not always navigated perfectly. 


It was always my expectation that being the oldest child and having the biggest family, that I would likely be the child caretaker of the parents. 


This was never an issue, but as I lived through years of increasing dependence and unclear boundaries, I wondered how LONG this phase of my life would last and saw it as a DUTY that I would learn to tolerate, rather than a PRIVILEGE I would continue to cherish.

Here’s a humorous example:


We lived on an acreage in the woods where you could usually see or hear cars coming up the driveway. 

One day, after I had been soaking in our hot tub in my birthday suit, I was making my way up to the bedroom via the kitchen when I caught a glimpse of dad, unannounced, and unexpected.I freaked out, hid behind the pantry and realized dad was oblivious to the world and hadn’t seen me. 


As I shouted at him to head back out the door for a bit so I could get dressed, he nonchalantly obliged as if this was standard operating procedure. 

 After multiple episodes of these unannounced close calls with myself or even Tim in precarious situations of being caught off guard, we attempted to discuss boundaries. 


Dad was not interested….. his response was ‘this is how I do it.’Locking him out of the house was impossible— he knew the codes and had a house key. 


Tim and I mostly laughed privately about it but still was an unsettled and ongoing issue that seemed unsolvable as dad’s mentation declined. 

You know when you get a little pebble in your shoe but you can’t get to it? These little things festered in my near consciousness. 

 Fast forward to the present where dad now resides in Canada. 


To be clear, I did experience initial guilt when he made the decision to move based on multiple factors, financial reasons being his biggest.I struggled with guilt and many emotions trying to  reconcile his choice to  move. It could be an entire chapter in itself. 


Now as I sit at his bedside, I am filled with compassion for this frail, aging man who is in the last chapter of his life. 


I am profoundly aware of every moment I have left with dad. I have more patience. 


I have more compassion. 

As I watch him slipping away due to the devastating consequences of dementia, I cherish all of our conversations and prod him to tell more stories. 


I’m trying to capture time and hit pause. 


His lifelong finicky habits now seem like cute oddities that I can laugh at (since I have inherited many of them!) His fixations and perseverations on ideas and wants do not trigger annoyance in me anymore. 


I know his brain is on a Ground Hog Day like loop with no memory of days or even moments before. I’m free to patiently love and humbly honor and serve the best I can.

 There is no more ‘grit’ in my shoe like there was in the past.

As a physician, I have seen many family members and loved ones try BEYOND their best to care for an aging family member beyond the point of not only safety, but of personal burnout and mental exhaustion. 


We all have different limits and abilities that we have to recognize and respect. 


Personally, having less demands on me to be a caretaker has changed my attitude and interactions with my father in a way I could not have imagined. 


I’m thankful I am able to step in to give my sister some respite and enjoy being helpful. 


Time escapes us all, but in the wake of dementia, it is a billboard countdown clock. 


I’m going to maximize all the moments I have left and create a memory wall in my mind I will cherish forever. 

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