Eighty percent of success is showing up.
Recently, I spent 11 hours with my dad in the hospital. Ironically, even though I'd come for my mother's birthday and because she was supposedly dying, my dad was the one who ended up being REALLY sick. On the first day, I could already tell that Dad was "off." My sister thought it was because he'd fallen on Father's Day and, initially, that explanation made sense. All I know is that Dad was grumpy and more confused than usual. One day, he decided to "go for a walk" outside. "Where are you going Dad," I asked as he lurched around the yard. "Going," he echoed, as he walked unsteadily around the front yard. Then, he set off through bushes between his house and the house next door. "Wait, wait," I yelled, to no avail. We thrashed through the bushes into the backyard where Dad plopped down into a lawn chair. About an hour later, my mother's caregiver and I were finally able to convince him to come inside and - with a big effort both of our parts - we successfully got him inside without a fall. Dad had a cold and a cough that I didn't like the sound of. I mentioned it to my sister. "Oh, he's had that cough," she told me."Okay," I said, and left it at that.
The third day of my visit, I arrived at my parent's house around 11 a.m. Dad was sitting in his recliner in a daze. He had eaten breakfast, but he wouldn't eat lunch or take his medicines. Dad was confused, his cough was worse, and he WOULDN'T EAT. My father is a man who ALWAYS eats. Something was definitely very wrong. I picked up the phone and shared the news with my sister and we both agreed that it was time to phone 9-1-1. The ambulance arrived in minutes and we were off to the ER.
What I learned there is that the ER is no place for an elderly parent to be alone. If they are as sick as my father was - or have any degree of cognitive decline - it is a recipe for disaster. Dad was confused and upset and, before long, became agitated too. "Let's go, let's go," he kept saying. When I pointed the medical staff out in the hall and reminded him that he was sick and in the hospital, he continued to say, "let's go, let's go." "Do you know who I am?" I asked, at one point, to gauge his degree of confusion. "Yes, I know who you are. You're my god-dammed daughter!" Dad practically shouted. "Now, let's go." It was turning into a long afternoon/evening.
By then, the nurse had put monitors on Dad: two on his upper chest, two on his lower chest, and a oxygen monitor on his finger. "Why don't you just put me in a god-dammed bungee suit," Dad shouted at one of the aides. Everyone laughed at that, including Dad. "Warren," one aid said, "it's only two feet to the floor. You'd be like a yo-yo." We all laughed again, but if Dad had been alone it wouldn't have been funny. Dad methodically pulled all of his monitors off and, no matter how many times they were reattached, off they came again. Finally, with my permission, they gave something to "take the edge off" his agitation and got a sitter. That gave me a breather to go get a sandwich and then, I was back in the ER. By this time, they'd done an x-ray, discovered that Dad had pneumonia, and found a room for him. I followed along as an aid and his "sitter" took Dad upstairs. By the time his nurse and the night attending doctor got around to doing an intake, Dad could barely form words. In fact, the only coherent answer the doctor got to her questions was when she asked Dad what year it was. "29," he answered with complete confidence.
Meanwhile, I helped with the important information they needed: the medicine he takes, how long he'd been sick, his age, and other relevant details. I hope that they would have phoned my sister to find these things out but it was a very busy night and I can't be sure that's what would have happened. It might have been as likely that they would have made do with the information they had on him from previous visits and, perhaps, have assumed the worst about his mental status. Dad does have some degree of cognitive decline; however, he is normally able to converse quite well, certainly knows what year it is, and a lot more. The bottom line is that, much as we might wish otherwise, the hospital is no place for a sick elderly person to be alone.
After 11 hours, I finally got back to my hotel room. Dad was sleeping and the doctors and nurses had the information they needed. Tired? Yes. Happy to have spent those 11 hours with my Dad? Again, yes. I looked for some advice about how to handle this problem of long-distance caregiving and hospital visits and I didn't find any that I really liked. Below are several links that address some of the problems. More next time on the loneliness of old age.
Finally, some final thoughts on the perennial dilemma: when should you move to be closer to my aging parents?