“Don’t I look like Steve Morelli?”
“I don’t know you,” the old man said as he reached up to pat down hair that had brightened into a brilliant silver since I saw him last.
“You were born in Providence. You went to the University of Rhode Island. You were in the Navy AND the Marines.”
“I don’t know how you know those things. Go. Leave. Go,” he said, shooing me with one hand as he adjusted the covers of his bed with the other.
“Look at this,” I said, pointing to the gap between my front teeth. “Don’t you remember this, Dad?”
He squinted at me as he felt for his glasses on the nightstand. I handed them to him and he studied my face as I stood by his bed.
“How did you do that?” he asked the imposter as he pointed to the space between his own front teeth.
That was the first glimmer of recognition after nearly an hour of patiently throwing out facts like darts through a fog. He still thought I was an imposter until hours later when it finally sank in.
Once again that afternoon, he studied my face.
“What happened?” he said, looking at me but touching his own hair.
“You mean my gray hair?” I said in mock offense. “You mean I got old?”
He barked a laugh and said, “Yeah!”
“Tell me about it, guy,” I replied with a smile and an eye roll.
That was the first time he laughed that day in March. Now that I think about it, it might have been the first time I had seen him do that since he had his stroke in 2010.
That was the last time I saw him, when I went out to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania to help him transition. That January, his landlady had called me after she found my number on his desk. She didn’t know whose it was because Dad had woken up in the hospital speaking gibberish.
In the limited time that I had out there in 2010, I helped assess his ability to live on his own and then find an assisted living facility. Dad had regained some of his power of speech while I was there, but he was still trapped in the mind of a child.
He had to sign over control to a son he hadn’t bothered to talk to for 35 years. Maybe it was just luck that he called me out of the blue about a year before his stroke. But I think he would have preferred to have faded into the ether as he had with everyone else who loved him his entire life.
Earlier this year, I returned to help him with another transition. After his stroke, dementia, breaking his hip, along with other maladies, he has surprised even his doctors by reaching 86. He had been in this facility for five years and his meager finances were running low.
Dad would never understand that the place that he called home would kick him out if he could no longer pay. He just knew that he wanted to stay, no matter how I explained it to him. He had been an auditor before he retired, but none of this was adding up for him.
He is now in a more affordable place that provides better care in a far more modest setting. To tell you the truth, the place seems more homey and inviting to me. After some resistance, Dad settled in.
Last week, the facility’s new owners called to say they were reassessing their prices for services. Soon, I expect to appear by my father’s bed yet again as an apparition that spirits him to a new, strange place.
This is the fate of more and more of my fellow middle-agers, dealing with relatives who far exceed their expected years, in many stages of debilitation. When our mothers and fathers were our age, they attended their parents’ funerals. We instead get to guide them along a long, painful journey through escalating levels of expensive care leading to the last beep-beep-beep in an intensive care unit.
As grim as that sounds, it can be a time of rich revelations for everyone involved. This is certainly an era of discovery not just for us as individuals but for all of us as a society. This is the dawning of the age of longevity.
In this month’s issue, we have an interview with LIMRA’s CEO Bob Kerzner and an InFront column featuring new information from the researchers. Both of those articles boil down to the question of what to do about longevity.
The “problem” of living longer is not just an equation of balancing dollars and years. It also requires a clear-eyed view of what those years look like. This is becoming a new duty of retirement advising.
Back on the East Coast, as I remind my mother of the names that used to be close at hand and the location of her favorite Macy’s, I am mindful of the moments we have.
I’m taking mental notes as my parents walk down their paths, hopeful that I will find those jottings when I need them most.