They are gone forever. And they will always be with me. My mother died on September 22, 2010 just four days short of her 91st birthday. My father died on January 7, 2011 approximately one month before his 93rd birthday. The loss of our parents is one of the most challenging thresholds to navigate in life. I will never forget the day of leaving home, a moment that is etched in my mind as the beginning of their final decline.
The On the Loss of My Parents series is a tribute to my parents, Bruce Alger (1918-2011) and Vi Alger (1919-2010). It is the origin and foundation for my project, “Aging in the Second Half of Life.” On the Loss of My Parents is also an example of how transformative writing can cultivate healing, self-renewal, and understanding that is good for self and others at the same time.
When a Loved One Dies
When a loved one dies, only the felt-meaning of their presence remains.
Helping to provide someone with a good death is one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences we can ever undertake in our lives. The death of a parent is a bitterly painful threshold in life. In a certain sense, death takes us to the very edge of what life-wide learning means. For the survivors, death is a transformative experience.
When we stand witness to the end of life, and eventually death, the feeling of life within us is changed forever.
When Home is No Longer Safe
My parents were fortunate to live long lives. I am immensely grateful to have had them in my life for fifty years. They forged strong, deep bonds with family and friends. In life their presence was immense; in death their absence is profound. And yet even in their absence, they remain close to me.
Imagine how you would feel if you could no longer be in your own home.
A home is more than a house. When my parents lost their home due to extreme frailty, they also lost a significant part of their identity, as well as the foundation of their independence. Their physical decline due to the natural progression of aging made living at home unsafe. Of course, like all of us, they desperately wanted to spend their months of life in the familiar surroundings of their own home.
Sadly, leaving home had become the only alternative for my mom and dad. And now I wonder just what is in store for me if I were to live long enough.
It is a bitter thing to consider that leaving home due to advanced aging is also a prelude to our own demise. I can vividly recall what was to become the final day my parents would spend in their home. My dad had fallen down that day, and his hip had completely given out. My mom was pleading with him to get up. He tried to get up. She cried at the bleak reality staring at them.
Their lives at home already had numerous support systems in place from various sources. But now, even with significant help, staying at home had become impossible.
There Really Is No Place Like Home
Not every house is a home. A house is something less than a home. A home is a sanctuary of belonging. The act of leaving home is a powerful threshold in life; moving out of a house is merely a change of scenery.
There really is no place like home.
A house is a physical structure; a home is an energetic space created out of love, caring, and gratitude. People sharing a deep bond of belonging transfigure the house as place into the vibrant space of home. Inside our homes we are embraced by a deep sense of belonging that offers a profound sense of safety and security.
Leaving home means losing a cherished sanctuary of experience. A home is inhabited by the memories by the authentic experiences of families and all the love, pain, joy, and suffering they experience in life. To be at home is to be in an ecology that has been crafted by the interactions, experiences, situations, and circumstances that surround the life of a family.
Inside a home we do not need to create appearances or wear appropriate social masks. A home allows grants us the freedom of authenticity, a space in which we can just be ourselves.
Having a home in life is to be embraced by love, belonging, and gratitude.
Home is a deep concept, far more significant than “house.” …memories, good and bad, are codified in the physical contents of the place. …the home becomes a mirror for the self. It represents you to yourself and, as such, provides a constant reminder of your uniqueness and contributions to your family, your neighborhood, your community.
– Phil’s Adventures in Elderburbia: The Deep meaning of Home
Leaving home is a traumatic, heart-wrenching experience.
As we get older, our ability to live independently becomes progressively more fragile. Aging in place is a strategy for remaining in home as long as possible. Many of us secretly desire to remain in the comfort of our own home until the day we die. But the physical and mental impact of advanced aging makes this challenging, financially challenging, and eventually impossible.
A Loss of Independence
My parents lived in a home in a beautiful little retirement village called Sandy Cove Acres in Innisfil Ontario area for twenty years. Their little bungalow was a small house, but a wonderfully large and vibrant home.
Their home was the sanctuary of our family. Their home was the nucleus of our belonging.
I loved visiting my parents and spending time with them. In fact, I completely restructured my career with one primary directive – to live close to my parents so that I could be with them during their final years. And as it turned out, I am grateful for nine years of living close by and being able to spend more time with them.
They were my mom and dad, and in the most important sense of the word, they were also best friends. There was immense spirit in their home that was crafted from the dynamics of our good times and our bad times as a family. The physical structure of that tiny little house was literally imbued with a deep history of memory and remembrance that defined us as a family.
There was a feeling of belonging in their home that was unique, special, and precious.
The thought of leaving home to move into long-term care was a source of profound anxiety for all of us. As a family, we seemed to lack the grammar, and perhaps the courage, to discuss the issue openly and honestly. In a sense, it was too painful for us to consider even though we knew it was an essential conversation to have.
It was their desire to remain and eventually pass away in their own home. Even though talking about it was quite difficult, their desire was not only to age in place, but to “die in place” as well. It is a fair, reasonable, and simple request. And it was impossible.
In one moment, the effects of aging on my parents seemed to be subtle and very gradual. Both of my parents were incredibly resilient, even in the face of significant age-related disease. Suddenly, or so it seemed, the effects of aging had turned into a crisis and demanded immediate attention.
Frailty has created risks where there once were none. They had passed through some kind of painful age-related point of no return. The first glimpse of their journey toward death and dying had revealed itself.
Normal aging seems to accelerate and intensify near the end of life. During the last few years, my parents were prescribed a wide range of prescription medications designed to help them manage various symptoms of age-related disease. In spite of this, their quality of life steadily declined.
As the relentless trajectory of aging progressed, they became more fragile and health problems appeared with increasing frequency. The possibility of leaving home had become a deeply painful source of anxiety for my parents. Both of my parents were fiercely independent, a style of living they both cherished and valued. But the resources we had exhausted to support aging in place were no longer enough.
I Just Want to Stay Home
Regular visits from a Personal Support Worker helped with the activities of daily living, which especially for my mom, were becoming increasingly difficult. My mother’s health deteriorated more rapidly than my father’s did. He became an important caregiver for my mom. And he provided wonderful care for her. Indeed, without my father’s assistance my mother could not live independently as long as she did.
My parents’ ability to age in place hinged upon my father’s health. Eventually, he started suffering from cognitive decline, and his physical resilience had started to wane.
It is strange and poignant to feel the energy in a home change from a comfortable embrace to an environment of fear and anxiety. Their house became increasingly hostile to them, while at the very same time their home remained the foundation of their independence.
Even with the assistance of network of support including CCAC, family, and friends, the ability for my parents to continue living independently became less and less probable. The range of assistive devices we installed in their home offered less assistance now.
Crisis situations requiring outside assistance increased in frequency. I was being called to their home more and more. Then it happened, the thing we all feared the most. In October of 2009 my dad fell to the ground and could not get back up. His hip had completely given out, and with it, the possibility of living independently at home.
In October 2009, the moment of leaving home had thrust itself upon us. In the space of the next fifteen months they would both be gone.
Each one of us enters into the world as a dependent, and if we live long enough we are likely to exit the world dependent upon the goodwill of others as well.
I Just Want to Go Home
In the hospital, my dad learned there were only two possible solutions for his hip:
- He could do nothing and spend the rest of his days taking pain medication and living in a wheelchair; or
- He could risk his life and undergo hip replacement surgery at age 91.
My dad and I talked about the options together. His heart capacity at this point in his life was only 27%. He had already had two major heart surgeries, and congestive heart failure had become a constant problem for him. The likelihood of making it through the surgery was questionable. If he did, the likelihood of recovering from the surgery and walking again was equally questionable.
I will never forget his words:
Brian, this is not living.
Philosophically, surgery was the best option for him, even in the face of life-threatening risks. He survived the surgery, but was unable to walk again. But something else had weakened in him as well. Even my father’s incredible power of resilience had started to fade. It also seemed as though this surgery had a negative impact on his clarity of mind.
While my father was in hospital, my mother was in respite at a local retirement home, but soon required the support of a long-term care nursing home. She wanted to go home, but her condition was now extremely frail. Leaving home caused tremendous suffering for her, and my heart ached in ways for my mom that I have never felt before.
I desperately wanted to get my parents back home. I couldn’t make it happen.
Even when we are doing our absolute best, a profound sense of guilt and failure can haunt us.
We had a difficult time discussing what my parents wishes would be if they no longer were able to live at home independently. Indeed, even their final wishes remained shrouded in mystery. Conversations about end of life care are essential to have.
It is not easy to have an honest and open discussion about leaving home and the end of life experience. We need to try and express our final wishes to those we love and care about so that they do not find themselves in the position of having to make those decisions for us. A Will and Power of Attorney are obvious necessities. However, they are completely inadequate when dealing with the practical realities and uncertainties that occur as the end of life nears.
Leaving home makes us homeless.
My parents never actually made the decision to leave their home; it became a painful and heart-wrenching necessity imposed upon them by circumstance.
None of us want to lose our home, regardless of our age or circumstance in life. It is savagely ironic that when we need to be in our own homes the most, we find ourselves leaving them behind in order to go an unfamiliar place to live out the remainder of our time here.
We are not just losing our home; we are losing our sense of belonging as well as the feeling of being in a home imbued by a rich diversity of memories. When we leave our home, we experience the vertigo of homelessness.
Perhaps we try to take pieces of our home with us to our new institutional life. Pieces of furniture, pictures from the walls, clothing, and other material possessions can provide a very fragile reflection of home wherever we may go. But the presence of that space, the energy that transforms a house to a home, is somehow lost in translation.
Of course, making the assisted-care environment home-like is good, but it is also important to accept that the sense of belonging that we call home does not readily follow us into an institution. When leaving home is forced upon us, we do find a new place to reside, but feelings of psychological homelessness inhabit our mind.
Aging is intimate with leaving home. My mother and father lost their home due to the relentless flow of aging and the increasing frailty of their body and mind. Their intention was to die while in the comfort of their own home. Life, it seems, can have other plans for us.
As we get older we all face the very real probability that, if we live long enough, we will inevitably reach a point at which we will not be able to live independently in our own home. In one sense, living a long life means facing the reality of experiencing a kind of homelessness near the end of life.
Leaving home behind is ultimately a spiritual endeavour of profound significance.
- The second article in this series is On the Loss of My Parents: 2 – A Loss of Independence