I was 21 when my mother passed away in 2011. Although it was sad, what was even more upsetting was how my 75-year-old father aged overnight. Being alone caused him to fall into a deep depression. He needed to be constantly around people, loneliness was his sworn enemy and there was no easy antidote. On his own, he didn’t always eat enough or drink enough and was in danger of falling.
On the threshold of adulthood, I didn’t know what to do about my father’s care. I had gone from studying Noam Chomsky in college to studying healthcare facilities. Initially, we tried a residence with services, which offered care 24 hours a day while maintaining a certain autonomy. However, the loneliness was too consuming. He neglected himself and it soon became apparent that this was not the right place for him.
I finally decided that a nursing home was the safest place for my father. I struggled with feelings of shame and inadequacy. My biggest fear was that it would take away my father’s dignity and autonomy, and that he would become institutionalized. I feared that he would lose his zest for life and become a zombie, completely dependent on the nursing home.
Fortunately, and to my surprise, the nursing home was better than I could have imagined. It gave her companionship, warmth and copious amounts of tea. He needed this caring environment like a child needs his parents. It was no substitute for his wife’s love and care, but it was like a security blanket. He had worked so hard all his life; it was his time to be properly cared for.
In the retirement home, my father came back to life and returned to his jovial, intellectually curious self. Every time I visited him, he walked around with his cane or his frame, in a good mood.
My father could entertain his greatest passion, reading, at the nursing home. I would buy him books on history, politics and his beloved Scotland. He read voraciously, sometimes a book a day. As his body became less and less mobile, his mind remained sharp. We would talk for hours about his childhood in wartime Glasgow. His mind took him back to the beginning of his life, his body to the end.
But five years after his stay, in 2016, we made a catastrophic mistake. I suffered from a mental illness – later diagnosed as bipolar disorder – and my father thought it would be a good idea for us to live together again. He wanted to take care of me.
Suddenly going from a catatonic state to caring for my elderly father, who had significant health needs, was disastrous for both of us. We moved into a small house together. My dad suddenly had to fend for himself again, after being stable in a nursing home. I dragged myself out of bed so I could clean the house and cook for him, but secretly I was barely surviving the depths of depression. I developed psychosis and ended up in the hospital.
My father had to go back to a retirement home. And yet, thanks to that, our quality time returned. I would take her to lunch every week or we would go for afternoon tea. He said he enjoyed his stay at the nursing home and felt safe there and cared for.
The deterioration of an elderly person’s physical or mental health can seem so cruel and often heartbreaking to their family. Yet in his last eight years, my father’s aging has been graceful. His spirit remained sharp until the end, and we deepened our relationship during this final chapter of his life.
There’s still a stigma around nursing homes, especially in my mother’s Japanese culture, where it’s anathema, and you’re expected to live with your elders at home until they die. . For example, my Japanese grandmother lived with her son, my uncle, until his death. There was never any talk of placing her in a nursing home, although she eventually entered a hospice. It has been common in Japan for several generations to live under one roof.
The elderly are sacred in Japanese society; respecting one’s elders is rooted in Japanese DNA. I deeply felt these societal and cultural pressures to resist the nursing home for my father at all costs. I still feel guilty in some ways that he spent his last years there. But in the end, there was no other choice.
Nursing homes may have a bad reputation for neglect and abuse, but I’ve seen nothing but good. The tireless work of the staff and their endless resources of empathy and care gave my father a new life, a life where he was safe and prosperous rather than alone and neglected. For someone with complex health needs and a lack of a support system like my father, this was the perfect place to spend his final years. It gave both of us a break so we could enjoy life again.