I am the youngest of three kids. My mom died several years ago and my dad has been living on his own. As the only child still living in Memphis, it was up to me to keep tabs on him, but that was pretty easy. He stayed active, involved in his church, had many friends, walked every day at the gym, worked in his garden. He was happy.
Then he injured his back while cutting some tree limbs. Early into the physical therapy after the surgery, he blew out his knee and had to have a knee replacement. He’s been in an assisted living place ever since.
The other day I went to see him. He begged me to take him home. He said he couldn’t live there anymore, he wanted to go home and die. When I refused, he ordered me out. Then my brother calls me and asks me why I’m forcing Dad to live in a place where they mistreat him. My sister calls and asks if she is going to have to come back and take care of Dad since I clearly seem incapable of handling it.
I tried to explain to them that Dad can’t even get out of bed, and his doctor says he isn’t ready to come home. He has not recovered and is not recovering because he isn’t trying to recover. He won’t do the basic physical therapy that would get him back on his feet.
Of course they don’t believe me, I think because I am the youngest and have a history of being nearly useless. I’m not that kid anymore, but they can’t see it. I don’t know what Dad has told them about me and about the place where he’s living, but it’s pretty clear he’s trying to guilt them into coming back to Memphis to take care of him. The things he has said to me have been hateful. He used to not be this way. He used to be a man I admired, but now he has turned into this shrieking creature who won’t even let me visit unless I promise to take him home. What can I do?
Dear Whipping Boy,
Pain changes people. Your father is probably scared to death by what he has gone through and his inability to easily bounce back from injury, maybe for the first time in his life. He feels helpless, so he lashes out. Your brother and sister feel helpless to help him, so they lash out. All these blows land on you. You must bear them.
You’re going to have to be the grownup in the family now. Are you over the age of eighteen? Then he can’t order you from his room. Step number one to resolving this situation is to stop letting your dad and your older siblings push you around.
You have to be strong for your father. Do you have kids? Right now, your Dad is your child. He’s your responsibility and you have to be the one who makes him do what is good for him, no matter how much he whines or cries or complains. You can help ease his acceptance of your dominance (to be perfectly blunt) by making sure the grass gets cut and the garden weeded. The next time your sister calls, tell her, fine, come on home – the yard needs mowing.
At the same time, you can’t treat your dad like a child, because that’s what he wants. He’s hurting and he wants someone to make it go away. That’s why he wants to go home, to the place where he’s always felt safe and in control. He’s not in control in the hospital. He’s scared, and he’ll do whatever it takes to escape. The lashing out is not personal. He’s just human.
Finally, he needs a good talking to, almost an intervention. I’d try to get the help of one or two of his friends, maybe his pastor or priest, and his doctor and nurses. This intervention absolutely must be led by you – the friends, doctors, and priests are there for backup. Let it be known that he can go home when his doctor says he is ready, and not one day sooner. That means weeks of painful physical therapy, but his doctor can help him manage the pain. If he does the work, he’ll get to go home, but if he doesn’t, if he stays in that bed, he may never get out of it.
With physical therapy, he will start to regain control of his body and his situation. He’ll feel strong again, master of his own destiny. He’ll have something to work toward, a goal to motivate him. This will restore his confidence and ease his fears. In time, you’ll see him transform back into the man you used to know.
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