You never thought your mum and dad would grow old, but one day you realise that they've finished minding you, and you're now minding them. and when that time comes, it's best to make some hard decisions sooner rather than later
That black and white photo on the left is of myself and my dad. I am guessing I'm about 18 months old, and he is 24. Twenty-four! This seems shockingly young to me, and yet it's not, because there are plenty of 24-year-old dads around. However, they are not my dad, so they don't count.
Even though my own father is no longer young, on the one hand it wrecks my head to think that he was ever little more than a child himself, and on the other, it is really difficult for me to accept the fact that he's getting older.
His health hasn't been the best, either, which is the understatement of the year. The early part of the Noughties felt like it was an unending series of phone calls from home (NYC), recounting yet another setback or complication, from diabetes to throat cancer. My mum is doing Trojan work to keep things ticking over, but my siblings and I have to face facts: we're going to have to figure out how to mind our parents now they're done minding us.
Practicalities first: you need to make sure that your folks have wills. When my father's cousin passed away, she hadn't left a will.
As he and my mother had been her primary caregivers, it fell to them to sort out her affairs. It was a nightmare that went on for almost three years, between lawyers and a flock of random third and fourth cousins who showed up looking for their share. Simply put, the mercenary horribleness of it all made quite an impression on the whole family, and it's a situation I would really urge everyone to take steps to avoid.
Wills are touchy subjects. In the midst of illness and fear, most people avoid talking about them, much less dealing with them. As well, it makes the inquiring child look like a vulture hanging about on the branch. It's got to be dealt with, however, because your parents should absolutely have a say in how they want their worldly goods managed.
Another vital element, which is completely weird, given that your own parents didn't have to deal with this: passwords. As if it wasn't weird enough that your mum was on Facebook in the first place, you've got to know how to gain access to email, Amazon, and who knows what else out there in the world wide web that has your parent's details.
It protects against hackers, too -- the last thing you want to have to cope with is getting into disputes with credit card companies because someone ordered a bunch of iTunes on your parent's MasterCard.
With everything else that may be going on, that's the last thing you need, and the last thing you need to bother them with.
The most troubling thing I've found in interacting with my dad is trying not to treat him like he is a baby. It is so important to treat him with respect, and to honour his dignity. The fact is, though, that there are some things he absolutely can't do any more, and it is a walk on the razor's edge to figure out how to deal with this change in what is, essentially, the power structure of the relationship.
You can't ignore the fact that your parent may no longer be able to do something, running the gamut from remembering to put the milk back in the fridge to being unable to clean and dress themselves.
You have to remain diplomatic and cheerful without being impatient and patronising -- and nobody ever said you were a saint, right? It is difficult for everyone, and trying to cope with your own fear and grief in the midst of actually managing the situation is very, very difficult.
So, admit to yourself that this is difficult! Understand that your experience of the situation is complicated. It is influenced by your own personal abilities to deal with change. And perhaps most importantly, your history with the ageing parent. If the relationship has not been a stroll through a springtime meadow, then it's going to be especially challenging.
If this is the case, then by all means investigate home care services. There are numerous companies across the country that provide all manner of services, from day to overnight to live-in care, and there are tax breaks for this sort of thing.
"In general, costs can vary between €20 and €25 an hour," says Grainne Byrne, of Home Instead Senior Care. "The bill-payer can claim up to 41pc of the cost back on tax, so the actual cost is between €10 and €15 per hour." Even a handful of hours a week can do wonders in taking the pressure off the primary caregiver.
What if you're not the primary caregiver? What if you're not even in the same time zone? With so many Irish emigrating once again, what can the long-distance son or daughter do?
Helping out with research is a good thing. Even if you are not on home ground, should certain issues arise, such as whether or not to look into home care, the magic of the internet means that you can at least pitch in on information gathering.
This can be a huge relief to the family members who have been involved in the day-to-day business of caring. Who needs to sit at the computer, even for half an hour, when they've been managing things all day long?
Here's an example: last year during the holidays, my brother brought one of his dogs along to visit, and my dad lit up brighter than the Christmas tree. Having a dog, however, is pretty much out of the question, as the additional care and feeding would probably send my mum and my sister and brother-in-law, who are also in the thick of it, completely around the bend.
So: I type in 'animal visits for the home bound New Jersey' and in 0.42 seconds I am connected to a link that lead me to the PDF of an article about Canine Caregivers, a volunteer organisation that brings pets to visit people who can't keep pets of their own, or who are homebound. I've got an email address and a phone number, and I'm not afraid to use them.
Just because I'm not physically there it doesn't mean I can't help.
So when I look at that picture and see my 20-something father, I can feel some heartache and wistfulness -- so young! -- but I'm happy to report that his little girl is all grown up, and doing her best to mind him, even if it is long distance.
See homeinstead.ie for more information about caregiving services.