The last phase of old age: What it's like when your parent moves into a nursing home

I read a wonderful piece on image.ie recently by Edaein O'Connell in which she reflects on her changing familial landscape. Her parents are retiring and there's an acknowledgment by her that they're getting older, as is she. I'm at the next outpost in that journey as my Dad moved into a nursing home two weeks ago. 

I remember too when my Dad retired. He was getting older certainly but he wasn't old. To me he looked the same as always (he never had much hair!) and he behaved the same way and enjoyed the same things he always had. He was still a good driver and an excellent navigator, a voracious reader, a crossword enthusiast, a Mastermind could-a-been and a winner of the £1 million prize on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire several times over from the comfort of his living room armchair. He loved Star Wars and Star Trek, Luther, Lewis and Midsomer Murders - he'd always guess whodunnit!

But now, 20 years on from his retirement, my Dad is old. He can no longer drive. In fact, he can no longer walk and is wheelchair-bound. He forgets things. And I don't mean elements of his encyclopaedic knowledge of history and film. He forgets that I've been to visit him at lunchtime when my sister speaks to him at teatime. His hands, which were always big and strong (and warm, now they're often cold) are shrunken and frail. When I was a child he would gently hold my fingers in his grown-up hands and deftly remove a splinter from my thumb. Thirty-odd years ago there were no devices to play with, so we were outside all the time. I wonder how many children suffer from splinters now?

These days I butter slices of bread for him as he did for me when I was a child. I help him put on his jumper so that he stays warm, and tie his shoe laces. I push him in his chair as he once did me in my pram. I ask him what he does in the nursing home each day, who he speaks with and what activities went on, just as he asked me about school many years ago.

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We all know that life comes full circle, but it still makes your head spin a little when it actually happens to you. What's tough about my Dad's change in circumstance is not the geography of it; I see my Dad as often as I did when he lived in our family home - we found a wonderful nursing home close by. It's the fact that it benchmarks so clearly and cruelly the last phase of his life; one of the first conversations he had with the doctor there was about his "end of life plan".

But even with so much change, and the reversal of roles that comes with ageing (child becomes carer and parent becomes dependent) there are constants that bring comfort. As Edaein said in her piece, it's calling her mother anytime she spots a spider on the stairs. For me, my Dad will always be the first person I go to for a book recommendation (followed closely by IMAGE Magazine's books editor Jennifer McShane). Dad was never very good with spiders, though... like Edaein, that's always been my mother's job. 

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