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As the last vanguards of the Greatest Generation pass, 7 things to know when caring for a parent

My father-in-law passed away last month, days away from his 99th birthday. He lived with us for 13 years. He was a great man, a World War II veteran who loved his wife and raised three children. 

As his vascular dementia worsened – unlike Alzheimer’s, his long-term memory remained intact almost until the end – my wife would set him up with a familiar film. “The Godfather” played most frequently, followed by “Patton.”

His parents were born in Sicily, and he spoke nothing but Sicilian Italian until he went to public school in New York. The actors in “The Godfather” were taught how to speak in the dialect. I asked him after one such scene if he could understand them. 

“Every word,” he replied with a smile. 

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And as a U.S. Navy Seabee, my father-in-law landed at Normandy a week after the invasion. He remembers his first nights ashore: “They were pounding those Germans in Cherbourg” he said, distantly imagining the war. 

“Did you land on the beach, or did you use the Mulberry port?” I asked.

“The beach.”

“How soon was it that you had your first hot meal?”

“Oh, right away.”

“The first day?”

“Yes,” he said with certainty.

I marvel at the wonders of World War II logistics. 

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Two weeks after he landed, the German defenders of Cherbourg surrendered, and he went in with his Seabee unit and repaired the extensive damage to the port so the Allies could ship in the vital tonnage of material needed to smash Hitler’s Reich. 

Four years ago, my father-in-law ceased being able to care for himself. I bought two electric razors, one foil to trim his beard and hair, and one rotary for a closer shave. 

I tried to make the shave a dignified experience like he’d get at the barber. I’d throw a towel around his neck, cover his chest, take off his glasses, and stoop over to shave him while he was in his electric easy chair. When I was done, I’d heat up a wet towel in the microwave and give him the hot towel treatment. He’d always let out a deep sigh.

For several years, he’d get up out of bed and get stuck, just staring at his feet for hours as his legs swelled up, becoming too heavy for him to swing them back into bed. He’d fidget and fuss nonstop at night. Sometimes he’d roam around his room, our security camera sending us an alarm to call us to his room and tuck him back into bed. He’d manage to get undressed often. The aftermath was unpleasant – especially at 3 a.m. 

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It was during this phase that we learned that not all adult diapers are created equal. The lower quality ones don’t properly wick away the urine, leaving elderly skin vulnerable. But there are high quality, 12-hour diapers available – at about $300 a month. But the reduction in bedding changes makes it worth it. 

My wife would often take his soiled clothes and pre-treat them with disinfectant in his tub. She’d transfer the clothes to a plastic bucket to move them to the washing machine – at 40 or so pounds, when I was around, I’d move it for her. Her back is in worse shape than mine. 

Eventually, he couldn’t walk the eight feet from his easy chair to his bed in the evening. 

I’d help him up and aim him toward the bed, “Are you ready to march?” I ask. 

“Yes,” he’d reply, sometimes with enthusiasm.

I’d draw out the marching cadence, “Yooouuurrr left!”

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He’d stand up straighter, my right hand under his left shoulder, “Your left! Your left, right, o-left, right, o-left, two, three, four… two, three, four!” I call out cadence as the Army taught me and we’d shuffle together to his bed as he mumbled along with me. 

Sometimes he’d say, “I didn’t know you knew how to call cadence.” 

One time “Patton” was playing, and I forgot to turn off the TV before I started marching him to bed. Gen. Patton was fighting in Sicily. Artillery was raining down. After having my father-in-law sit on the bed, I turned around and noticed the TV blaring sounds of war. “I better turn that off,” I said, “You already did that once.”

He smiled and then said, “I did it once. Yep. Did it once and do it again.” 

But my Army service once rubbed him wrong. He thought some of his Navy clothes were missing from his closet one day. He told my wife he was certain that I threw them away because I was in the Army and I hated the Navy. 

His last big adventure happened just before he was put on hospice care, soon to never leave the hospital bed we brought into the house for his last seven months.

One night, the security camera never activated. Instead, our daughter knocked on the bedroom door sometime past 2 a.m. “Pop-Pop is in the kitchen!” she said. 

We came rushing out. He was in a chair, staring down at his feet. Some 4,000 calories of frosted, boutique cookies for my wife’s birthday were gone, crumbs everywhere. He even tore apart and nibbled at a few of my wife’s high-end herbal teas in fancy silk tea bags – a rare comfort. We guessed it looked like trail mix. 

Looking at the camera replay showed my father-in-law executing a ninja-like move as he smoothly swung out of bed and made his way to raid the kitchen without his walker. The next morning, he was none the worse for wear. Though we certainly were. Driving home from work that evening, I struggled to stay awake during the 45-minute commute. 

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In speaking with some of the hospice care workers, we heard terrible stories about convalescent homes – leaving residents on the floor for hours at a time, often with breached diapers. These facilities often have nice “show” furniture in the front reception area, which is designed to give off a clean, dignified air – but is nothing more than a stage, off limits to the residents. 

Not everyone is equipped to care for parents who need it. But homecare is less costly than sending a parent to a facility – and you’ll always provide better care to a loved one than will a stranger. My father-in-law was surrounded by family and pets, conveying a sense of love and security. 

We’re conceived, born, and, except for Enoch and Elijah, we die.

Life’s point is what we do during our time breathing air. 

Some of us have Hope. Many just push it out of their minds. The end approaches for all, anyway. 

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM CHUCK DEVORE

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