Life with Pop: Lessons on Caring for an Aging Parent

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9781583333426: Life with Pop: Lessons on Caring for an Aging Parent
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From bestselling author and clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring comes a refreshingly honest and tender portrait of a devoted daughter caring for her father through his final years of life

After her mother died, Janis Abrahms Spring "inherited" her father-Pop- and set off on an all-consuming five-year mission to make his days as rich and comfortable as possible. This is their story, overflowing with humor, insight, and love. In beautifully crafted vignettes, spring brings their deepening relationship to life-both the joy and the imposition, the happiness and the heartaches.

From her unique perspective as a clinical psychologist, Spring explores the emotional and practical complexities of parenting a parent. Inspiring, deeply moving, and frank, Life with Pop is an ultimately comforting meditation on a universal experience, as well as a book with profound lessons on how to grow old gracefully.

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About the Author:

Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., is a nationally acclaimed psychologist and bestselling author. Her first book, After the Affair was a finalist for “Best First Book” and “Best Relationship Book,” Books for a Better Life Awards. Her second book, How Can I Forgive You? was a finalist for “Best Psychology Book,” Books for a Better Life Award. Dr. Spring is a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology, a recipient of the Connecticut Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Practice of Psychology, and has served as a clinical supervisor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University.

Dr. Spring trains hundreds of therapists each year. She is a popular media guest on programs such as NPR, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper 360, and the CBS Early Show, and she presents regularly at such public venues as The Smithsonian Institute, The 92nd Street Y, Omega Institute, and Kripalu Institute. She and her husband live in Westport, Connecticut, and have four sons.

Michael Spring, her husband, is former publisher of Frommer’s Travel Guides at John Wiley and Sons, and co-author of After the Affair and How Can I Forgive You? He has a B.A. from Haverford College and an M.A. in English Literature from Columbia University.

Michael Spring is former publisher of Frommer’s Travel Guides at John Wiley and Sons, and co-author of After the Affair and How Can I Forgive You? He has a B.A. from Haverford College and an M.A. in English Literature from Columbia University.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Home Care

December 10, 2000

Dad is back in Florida I tried to keep him in Connecticut near me, but he insisted on returning to his Delray Beach condo. Who can blame him? If he can’t live with me, he wants to be back in the sun. Why subject old bones to a howling New England winter? Why give up a bathing suit for boots and gloves?

Dad is making a life for himself. He retired his golf clubs a few months ago but still likes to putt on the clubhouse green. He drives during daylight hours, ambles about haltingly without a cane, walks the water in the pool, plays bridge with the guys in the men’s lounge, and eats enthusiastically—God bless his appetite.

There are times, though, when he simply can’t function alone. He would love to go to the movies at night but, as they say, a man needs a wife to drive him. Who will manage the late-night emergencies, never mind the laundry and medication? His apartment is on the second floor, reached by a steep flight of concrete steps, the color of flamingos. How long before he slips and falls?

I contact a home-care agency and arrange for an aide to spend a few hours every afternoon with Dad, running errands, fixing him dinner, but she never shows up. Her replacement talks Dad’s ear off, so I let her go. I dismiss the next one, too, when she tries to hit him up for a loan. The fourth arranges to have her young children dropped off at Dad’s apartment after school—Dad loves life, but not that much. The fifth spends her day in Dad’s kitchen, reading the Bible. She reminds Dad that Jesus loves him, praise the Lord.

Home companion Number Six is bright and friendly but cooks an early dinner and leaves by five. I give her Mom’s recipes, but she ignores them. Dad sits in his kitchen alone, nibbling on salted cod with hot pepper, cold and soggy because he can’t operate the microwave. He’s used to cold borscht with sour cream, or brisket with steamed broccoli— tastes as foreign to his caregiver as hers are to him.

Dad is becoming more and more isolated, walled up in his apartment, wed to his new bride, the TV. When I call, I often catch him napping.

Who am I kidding? Dad needs to get a life. This one’s not working.

Independent Living

February 8, 2001

Maybe a compromise can be reached. Maybe Dad can stay in Florida in a supportive adult community and I can be a loving, involved daughter, managing the details from Connecticut fourteen hundred miles away. Mike and I fly south to scope out the options.

The first place we visit, an independent-living facility, is too independent for Dad. The residents are healthy and vigorous, and scurry from activity to activity—yoga, digital photography, mutual-fund investing. They discuss Philip Roth in a book club and learn how to roll a credible maki sushi in cooking class. They do their own wash. Dad couldn’t even walk from the lobby to his apartment.

Our next stop, an assisted-living facility, is too assisted. Residents shuffle breathlessly down the corridors, clutching walkers, or sit diapered on outdoor patios in wheelchairs pushed by hired hands. The level of care is much higher here, but death lurks in every corner. The director, itching for a sale, pounces on our hesitation. “Just don’t wait too long,” she admonishes us. “Children often make that mistake, then they’re hit with a crisis and there ’s no place for their parents to go. Most good facilities have a waiting list several months long.”

She smells blood, the viper.

When Mom was hospitalized, I put down a deposit on an apartment in Summerwood, an independent-living facility in West Hartford, Connecticut, that would be opening soon. Dad knows the neighborhood intimately: we lived only minutes away. Dad could drive around, find his old barber, even shop at the Crown, an incomparable kosher supermarket right up the street. He has a few old friends who still live in town, the beginnings of a social life. Michael’s sister, Sue, lives nearby. Most important, Michael and I live only an hour and fifteen minutes away.

I press Dad to try Summerwood for six months, promising not to sell his condo, perhaps just to rent it. If the cold gets to him, we’ll figure out how to get him back south. With great reluctance, he puts himself in my hands.

In bringing Dad north, my life takes on a new focus. I give it a name. I call it, fondly, Pop, the Project.


February 28, 2001

Summerwood is a compact, cedar-shingled, three-story building set comfortably back from a quiet suburban road. A circular driveway cuts through a mottled lawn landscaped with young hydrangea bushes and old trees. A few residents huddle on an open porch, kibitzing, waiting for spring.

“I’m here to check out my father’s new apartment,” I tell the receptionist.

“Does he like Frank Sinatra?” she asks with a cheerful informality.

“I’m hoping to play oldies-but-goodies on Sunday afternoons.”

On the counter in front of her is a card for residents to sign. It says: “Wishing you sweet memories of your husband.”

I’ve chosen a one-bedroom unit on the top floor, just off the elevator, an easy walk for Dad. The laundry room is only steps away. Who knows? He may learn to wash his shirts and socks someday.

Sunshine floods the apartment: a bright, empty space waiting to be filled. The walls are soft cream, the color of Dad’s temperament—calm, unimposing. The bathroom has an oversize door for a wheelchair and a huge open shower. A single bed is all he needs now. Propped up on pillows, he can peer out the window at the tops of trees and enjoy the changing seasons. He can also look down at the parking lot and see me coming to visit him, bearing turkey pastrami and half-sour pickles.

Summerwood opened only a month ago but is already three-quarters full: about sixty residents have moved in, mostly women, and mostly Jewish, though not necessarily religious, ranging from their midseventies to nearly a hundred.

A few share space with an ailing partner, but most live alone, their partners dead or living out their final days in nursing homes nearby.

Summerwood seems too good to be true. Except for the Sabbath, there are activities every day of the week: ceramics, painting, aerobics, bridge. The University of Hartford is right down the street, hosting concerts and cultural events, free to the elderly. Only minutes away is the Jewish Community Center with its exercise room and men’s club. Not that Dad is going to play racquetball, but with help he could walk the shallow end of the indoor pool.

Dad gets transportation to medical appointments and access to a daytime nurse. Aides are available for hourly hire to bathe him and dispense medications. If he pushes the emergency button on his necklace, someone will come running. If he doesn’t show up for meals, someone will find out why.

Summerwood serves two kosher meals a day, breakfast and dinner. Dad is far from kosher, but at least he’ll recognize the food, and he can order a tuna fish on rye for lunch in the second-floor café if he’s willing to fork over five bucks.

On the carpet by the window I place a hearty, two-foot Kentia palm plant. This will give the apartment some life. It will also give Dad something to care for and occupy his mind other than his aches and pains. We’ll see whether he remembers to water it.

All things considered, the apartment looks great—cozy, familiar, manageable, fresh. I’ll do my best to make it his home. I feel an optimism, a sense of control I haven’t felt since Mom got sick. Maybe it’s going to work out. Maybe there’s a chance it will be okay.

The Hardware Store

March 1, 2001

I’m off to the local hardware store to buy a paper-towel dispenser. “It’s for my elderly father’s new apartment,” I explain to the salesclerk.

“Will it go into drywall, wood, or plasterboard?” he asks.

“You’re kidding,” I respond, rolling my eyes. Who has time for this? Dad is coming north in ten days.

He catches my impatience: “After all the time your father has given you, you don’t have five minutes to get this right?”

I can’t figure out if this guy is an insensitive bastard or just a bit gruff. Maybe he has an aging relative of his own. Or maybe he’s trying to help me and I’m too sensitive.

I decide to trust his motives and open myself to him. “My mother died, and I’m moving my dad into an independent living home.”

His face softens. “That’s hard,” he says. “Really hard.”

He doesn’t ask, “Why isn’t your father moving in with you?” but I imagine that’s what he’s thinking. That’s what I’m thinking.

I pick up a few lightbulbs, a wastebasket, some plastic liners. This is the easy part. Checking things off lists, managing details.

“Just remember,” he calls out as I walk toward the door.

“What will help your father most is if you visit him once in a while.”

His wisdom shakes me. I should give him my job as a clinical psychologist, as a grieving, guilt-ridden daughter.

Guilt and Sorrow

“My mother is a sick, old woman who doesn’t have much to live for,” Sally tells me in an e-mail. “She drags herself around with emphysema, sucking in the air. I manage her care&mdas...

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