While caring for my elderly parents, a well of empathy from the least likely of places
“Let’s see, it will cost about $18,000 to pull the tub out and replace it with a walk-in shower.”
“How much?” my dad barked as the 4th contractor sunk a little lower in his chair. After repeating the quote for the work, my father said, “Get out of here. You’re nothing but a shyster.”
I tried to calm my father and apologize to the contractor as he quickly picked up his clipboard and brochures and headed out the front door.
This was the worst encounter yet. My elderly dad had reached his boiling point, angry at the prospect of altering the main bathroom in my parent’s home. It had been beautifully remodeled many years before when he hired a company to take it down to the studs and customize it for my mother and him. They were in their sixties then and I remember their excitement at finally having a bathroom all to themselves and being able to choose every single thing in the new room, from the tile on the floor to the highly polished nickel cabinet pulls on the vanity.
Now, as my parents aged in place and well into their 80’s, the bathtub had to go. My mother could no longer bathe herself as her Alzheimer’s progressed, leaving me and other caregivers with the unbelievably hard task of getting my mom in and out of the tub safely. My dad’s mobility was becoming more compromised as well, but he remained in a state of denial about his own limitations. For him, agreeing to make any structural changes to his home meant he would have to confront all the physical and mental changes he and my mom were experiencing, and he wanted no part of it. Grab bars and toilet seat lifts were for old people and he refused to think of himself as old.
After my dad sent the latest contractor packing, I had no idea what I was going to do next. I told my father if we didn’t solve the bathtub issue, staying in their home as they aged would no longer be an option. I did still have one last contractor to meet but frankly, I was not optimistic.
The next morning, the doorbell rang at 10:00 am sharp and in walked the fifth and final home remodeler I was scheduled to meet. He was a tall, robust fellow in his late 50’s to early 60’s with a mop of graying curly hair. He held out his hand and said, “Hello, my name is Romeo.” I pointed him in the right direction and he marched straight into the bathroom, looked around and asked, “So what do you have in mind?” I sheepishly start explaining the odyssey I had been on in trying to secure a reasonable price for a bathtub-to-walk-in-shower conversion. I started rattling off some of the quotes I received from the four previous contractors . . . $14,000, $15,000 and a whopping $18,000 from the guy who was almost chased out of the house by my father the day before.
I told him my dad was resisting the needed bathroom remodel. He hated any changes to things he was used to. For him, losing familiar things signaled a loss of control.
I told Mr. Romeo I was running out of options and my dad’s reticence was compounding the problem. I also expressed my concern about the downtime needed to complete an expensive renovation to the only accessible bathroom in their house. Mr. Romeo said, “I’ve got something for you and I promise you and your dad are both going to love it.” I could not imagine what he was going to say next and I steeled myself expecting this proposal to be as unworkable as the prior four proved to be.
He went on to describe this new process of making a kind of surgical cut in the acrylic tub that would allow safe access to the shower through the tub wall. All the work, including the installation of grab bars and a new shower attachment would only cost about $1,800 instead of $18,000. For an extra $600, he would install a custom Corian shower seat. I couldn’t say sign me up fast enough.
After going over the pricing and logistics for the remodel, Mr. Romeo and I sat at the kitchen table talking. I was totally worn out and I think he sensed the strain I was under trying to address my parents’ needs so they could continue to live at home.
“I know how hard it must be for you,” he said. I nearly burst into tears. The pain I experienced on a daily basis started bubbling to the surface. He told me his mother had also suffered from Alzheimer’s and he had helped care for her.
“Are there any brothers or sisters?” he asked.
“Yes,” I told him. “I have three sisters.” I told him the oldest one lives in another state and I had not seen or spoken to her in nearly 20 years. The next oldest lives an hour away and I did have a relationship with her at one time, but she conveniently absented herself when my parents’ health began to decline, leaving all the heavy lifting and difficult decisions to me. The youngest of the four was a rootless vagabond who was in her middle forties and still clueless about taking care of herself, let alone pitching in to care for two compromised, elderly parents.
Mr. Romeo recounted his own experiences when he was caring for his mother and said, “My younger brother stayed away when our mother was ill.” and then added, “He just couldn’t stand to see our mother that way.”
I could feel my anger building as my chest began to tighten and I said, “What made your brother think it was easy for you to see your mother that way?” He said, “My brother was weak and I forgave him. I had to forgive him.”
I told Mr. Romeo it was crushing to watch my once vibrant parents deteriorate over time, witnessing all the unwelcome changes they were experiencing, and then having to make so many hard decisions every day, trying desperately to keep both of them out of nursing homes.
My sisters made a conscious decision to avoid all the unpleasantness and hard work. It wasn’t weakness that kept them away. It was sheer selfishness, a shared inability to care. They just didn’t love my parents enough to be concerned about their well-being. I told Mr. Romeo it was very generous of him to forgive his brother and that perhaps his brother deserved to be forgiven. In my family’s case, my self-centered, disinterested sisters deserved nothing but scorn.
Mr. Romeo leaned back, sighed, and said, “You are the one who is here every day, and do you know why?”
“No, why?” I asked.
“Because you’re stronger than your sisters.” He told me people have to be forgiven for their weaknesses.
I thought, if I were a priest, I would be required to forgive them their trespasses. I am no priest.
Mr. Romeo’s words were actually empowering, making me feel I could continue to take on the challenges I was faced with as he did.
I never expected to have such a philosophical conversation with the bathroom remodeler I had just hired. People who have cared for their own parents have a way of connecting with others who’ve cared for theirs. They can always offer some pearls of wisdom about the experience, from the woman at the antique clothing store where I bought a silk scarf one day to the nurse at the pulmonary center where I took my dad twice a week to remove fluid from his lungs. Their understanding and kind words made me feel less alone during an extremely isolating time.
When family members actively avoid responsibility, it is these people who step into their shoes, literal strangers willing to offer insight and support. They become the sisters and brothers you no longer have when your parents get sick. The thoughtful observations and words of comfort from people like the tub-cut guy, people you barely know, are often surprising. Their stories of resilience always resonate and help to fill the void created by careless siblings who disappear when their parents’ long, slow decline begins.