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Happy Obligatory Fall Meal with People who are not Your First Choices

November 21st, 2017

Hurry up, Friday

Thanksgiving is nearly here.

Yay. Whee.

My attitude toward holiday cooking is not good at all. I rarely cook these days. If you don’t count the soup I make and freeze in portions for breakfast, I have cooked less than once a week for quite some time, and when I do cook, it’s usually for myself. I quit cooking for my dad. The work was just too much.

I used to cook for everyone I knew. Eventually, I got tired of it. Guests wore me out. They didn’t help much with shopping or cooking. Some guests showed up late or not at all. Some left early, as soon as they were full. Very few helped clean up. And how often did they invite me over for food? Not very.

One day, I heard the obvious notion rattling around in my mind: it is not normal for a single man to bust his hump cooking for 8 people in his own house. Entertaining is for married people. I quit cooking, except for rare occasions. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving is mandatory, so I can’t get out of it. We could go to a restaurant, but that would be so depressing, it would be worse than cooking at home. If I were alone, I could skip it entirely and think nothing of it, but I’m not alone.

Thanksgiving is a major undertaking for one person. Even a modest meal takes two days to prepare, unless you serve instant mashed potatoes and a canned ham. You have to do a lot of shopping. You have to store the food for several days before you prepare it. Then you have to clean the house and set the table, and afterward, you have to clean the kitchen and table area. It’s a nightmare.

If you’re married, you can divide tasks with the wife. If you have kids, you may be able to enslave them to some degree. If you have a big family, you may have parents, sisters, and brothers who will help. My mother is dead. My grandparents are all dead. My relatives in Kentucky don’t invite me or my dad to holiday meals. I don’t know if they’re afraid my sister will show up, or if they have some mysterious problem with me. My sister made them suffer a lot, but I have always dealt honestly with them.

Meals with my dad are not that great. His table manners are a problem. You have to look at your plate while you eat unless you want to see what he’s chewing. He stuffs himself, which is off-putting. You have to watch him to keep him from putting his fork or his dirty hands in common dishes, rendering them offensive to everyone else. He spills food on himself. He says, “lotta food,” maybe five times per meal. Because of dementia, he asks the same questions over and over, trying to start a conversation. If I bring up a better topic, he is likely to dismiss it immediately, as if I were stupid to bring it up. He gets upset because we don’t talk, but he makes it very difficult.

He likes to nag me about getting married and giving him grandchildren. He tells me how old I am. Sometimes he starts reminiscing about old times, which is very disturbing. I forgive him for the negative contributions he made to my childhood, and I never bring them up, but I won’t sit still while he talks about how happy I was. I correct him. I say things like, “My childhood was horrible, and I hate talking about it. Every day I thank God I’m an adult.” Then he gets angry with me.

When he’s done eating, there is food spilled on the table and floor, and I have to take care of it. And he likes to put spit on his finger and rub tables and counters with it, to remove smudges and so on. Often, the smudges are really flecks in the granite. He thinks they’re bits of food. He leaves a film of dried spit on things, and I have to go behind him with counter cleaner and alcohol.

His manners upset guests. They work together with me to contain the damage. “You don’t have to serve yourself; let me get that for you. Move so I can wipe that up. Let me get you more napkins.”

Thanksgiving should be a time to relax and enjoy life with people whose company you enjoy, but to me, it’s a huge chore I can’t wait to get behind me.

Another problem: the nice people next door invited us to eat with them. I had to weasel out of that. I don’t want to seem unfriendly (although I am), but I don’t like involving my dad in new relationships. When I’m with him, I’m uncomfortable and very restrained. I’m on duty, as a caretaker. My personality is muted. And he offends people. He told my friend Mike he looked like a fruit in his pink shirt, and he also looked over and announced, “You’re losing all your hair.” He said some troubling things to my friend Amanda when she cared for him over a weekend. It’s not a dementia thing, either. He was always like that.

My dad likes to talk about how serious I am, and he criticizes me for not talking. He says these things in front of people, and they probably believe it. If you come from a sick, dysfunctional family, it’s always best to minimize your family’s exposure to your friends and love interests. You need to be around people who will let you grow, not people who will try to keep you deformed and small.

He has made some effort to improve over the last few years, but dementia patients can’t alter their behavior all that well. He is stuck with his bad habits and flaws because he waited too long to admit they existed.

Amanda has no one to help her with Thanksgiving, so I invited her to come and bring her kids and her dysfunctional mom. We will take work off of each other, and both of us will benefit from the presence of a non-gaslighting, helpful adult. When Amanda’s mom puts her down, I’ll be around to remind Amanda how ridiculous and pathetic her mom’s perceptions are. If my dad empties his nose on the porch in front of everyone, Amanda will be there to step around the mucus and sympathize with me.

The presence of Amanda and her kids will make the ordeal considerably easier to bear, and it may be that my presence will cramp her mom’s style and put her on her best behavior.

When you look after a dementia patient, you have to limit your exposure. You can’t sit in the room with the patient all day, listening to them say the same things over and over. That’s especially true when the patient makes a point of saying annoying things which he knows are annoying, or when the patient keeps arguing about the same things, no matter how obvious it is that he’s wrong.

You can’t cruficy yourself because the patient isn’t entertained 24/7. You have to say, “Sometimes people plan their lives poorly, and when they do, a certain amount of suffering is unavoidable and just and not to be blamed on others.” It’s okay if a difficult patient experiences some boredom and loneliness. People who are not demented experience those things, and no one gets upset about it. It’s part of life. There is no law that says you’re entitled to constant entertainment simply because you’re demented.

I get bored occasionally. Sometimes, for a few minutes, I’m lonely. No one makes a federal case out of it. No one comes running to wipe my nose, and I’m fine. I know my dad would be happier if I sat beside him all day stepping and fetching and making balloon animals or whatever. I would be happier, too, if someone else gave up his or her life to keep me entertained and do my bidding. Doesn’t make it a good idea.

My approach is to ration the time I spend with my dad. I make sure we go out to eat three or four times a week. I check on him. I also make sure I have adequate time alone, to wind down. After bagging ten pounds of wet, reeking diapers and taking them to the dump, you really need time to wash carefully, sit down alone or with friends, and decompress. That’s especially true when the person who wears the diapers has broken through the Diaper Genie bag and has continued pushing filthy diapers into the Diaper Genie anyway.

You have to look after your parents when they need help, unless they’re absolutely unbearable. You don’t have to be a martyr or an enabler.

The stage of dementia my dad is in right now is said to last up to two years, and he is maybe six months into it. The next stage is much worse. Vascular dementia patients typically live about 5 years after they manifest symptoms, and things started going bad for him in about 2015. If my dad lives long enough, the following things will happen to him: we will get an attendant to come here and help him for a few hours a day, and then in the next stage, he will forget who I am and how to get dressed. He will have to go to a facility. At that point, he will have maybe two more years of life left. I want him to be happy while he’s here and reasonably lucid, but it won’t be long until I have to put other people in charge. At that point, I’ll have to get used to the fact that I have nearly no ability to provide him with company or amusement. I’ll have to trust strangers and be at peace with it.

I remember visiting his mother with him, after she moved to a nursing home. The whole place smelled like feces, even though it was clean. You can only do so much to reduce the smell of diapers. An old woman with a blank look on her face was using her feet to pull herself around in a wheelchair. She made unintelligible sounds. My dad leaned over and whispered, “If I ever have to go to a place like this, just kill me.”

I think about that sometimes. Unless he passes unexpectedly, he’s going to have to go to just such a place. Will he hate it as much as he thought? People’s desires and priorities change with their circumstances. No one is going to kill him, so he may have to face a move to a home. I shouldn’t assume too much; nurses and other healthcare providers kill people all the time to get them out of the way, so maybe one day when my back is turned, someone will play God.

The other day he asked me if he was losing his mind. He’s in denial almost all the time, so that surprised me. I didn’t say yes, which would have been true, but I was honest. I told him the condition he has gets worse, not better. I didn’t know what else to say. Pills are available, but his doctor recommended not using them, and he doesn’t want them.

Tomorrow I plan to bone the turkey and prepare cornbread for stuffing. I may cook yams so they’ll be ready to finish preparing on Thursday. I still don’t have a real dining table, so I need to get a second plastic folding table.

The food will be incredible, and Amanda and I will enjoy the kind of bonding friends from dysfunctional families are famous for. Hopefully her kids will be insulated from the holiday misery their father’s wretched behavior has the potential to cause. It will be at least seven years until he is allowed to see them again. That time needs to be dedicated to healing.

When the meal is done, I plan to make Amanda take as much of the leftovers as possible. My dad will complain, but Thanksgiving leftovers make for a big mess during the following week, and my dad tends to keep them until they are rotten. Also, they’re fattening.

If you are lucky enough to have quality Thanksgiving gatherings, enjoy them while you can. I enjoyed a lot of great holidays in Kentucky when I was a kid. I’m glad I have those times to remember. In the meantime, I will grit my teeth and deal with this obligation.

6 Responses to “Happy Obligatory Fall Meal with People who are not Your First Choices”

  1. Mike Says:

    My sister and I nearly did ourselves in trying to look after our dad. He had long periods of clarity but his down times were very trying. He had a colostomy that was a real chore when he was not able to look after himself. His last Christmas I lived with him in his home for a week. My brother in law helped us see that we couldn’t keep on taking care of him, God bless him as we were blind to the big picture while trying to care for him daily. He actually didn’t hate the skilled nursing facility, I think because they actually knew how to care for him while we just winged it as best we knew how. After I knew he would be looked after I think I slept for a week, just didn’t realize how run down I was.
    I will pray right now for you both.

  2. Ruth H Says:

    Blessings on you, Steve, may you have a good Thanksgiving day. I know you give thanks on everyday, but sometimes we need a really good Thanksgiving day. Blessings on your friend and her children, they are in need of love. Thank you for taking care of your father under difficult circumstances, I pray he knows to be thankful for that.

  3. Walt Says:

    My Mother is in a ‘ nice’ Nursing Facility and it only costs her about $6000 a month, but my sister is the estate guardian and only gives me general information about these things. She (Mom) likes it there; plays gin rummy (I think) and has some friends, and really likes the food-her room is small and spotless.
    Mom is pushing 95-great Sicilian-American stock, uses a walker, and is stuck in a ‘five minute loop’, asking the same questions, over and over. She seems lucid otherwise, however, her hearing is shot and she is starting to forget how to manage her hearing aids. She still recognizes me, but we (my siblings & I) think that this too will erode. I do nothing to assist, other than to show up when I can-my sister does it ALL and she is an amazing woman. So that is Mom’s plight. My Sweetheart & I commiserate with each other about our age related health ‘annoyances’ and try to do healthy eating and we need to start riding our bikes. I’ll be 65 next month and am enjoying retirement, but more and more wondering how much quality time I/we have left. It did not take that long to get this old. I extend my best wishes to you and yours, Mr. Graham and if I find an extra prayer, I will send it along, although most of my prayers are spoken for. The Circus Animals’ Desertion” by Yeats comes to mind; also by Yeats: “THE LAMENTATION OF THE OLD PENSIONER”. Worth reading, easy to find online. Happy Thanksgiving, Steve.

  4. Cliff Says:

    I am sorry to hear it is so hard.

    Glad you have a friend like Amanda.

    -XC

  5. Anthony Says:

    Being an American living overseas, and my kids in local schools, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving this Saturday. We’re hosting 14 adults and 5 kids. A lot of work for the wife and me – but we enjoy it. And the really good thing is our guests are our first choices. All friends – no blood relatives. People who are a joy to be around. My wife’s family is great too – and if we lived closer, they would be 1st choices. My family is another matter.

    Sadly, my Mom is headed where your Dad is now. And she does believe that others, read her kids, do need to keep her entertained and do her bidding. As none of my siblings do that by, or me because I live a plane ride away, she is not a happy camper. Always complaining how her kids abandoned her. I tell her, you have a car and are still healthy enough to get around. How about getting out, volunteering at Church – or somewhere else, and surround yourself with people. She’d rather complain than take responsibility for herself.

    Thank you for sharing your stories – it’s a good reminder that no one person is the first to experience these life seasons.

  6. Monty James Says:

    Hope you have a good Thanksgiving anyway.

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