It was a dreary and grey March day, cold and tedious as are the days when winter drags on too long. Bleary-eyed, I waited to board the early-morning flight from Montreal to Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island, clutching my take-out coffee in one hand and my cell phone in the other. I was thinking about how I would have to postpone my retirement plan to live in a different city for a few months each year. Frequent trips to Toronto to visit my elderly father weren’t part of the plan.
As my dad’s physical condition deteriorated, he could no longer get to the dining room on his own from his little apartment in the retirement home, even with the aid of his walker. He knew he needed more care, and it was time to move again. Providence, a long-term care residence, would be his last home.
I knew I’d hate the place. This was my father’s last stop, and at his age, I knew “long-term residence” was a misnomer. The reality hit me the first time I signed in at the front desk and asked for directions to Room 348.
“Third floor,” said the man behind the desk in the Garda Security uniform and yellow turban, motioning me toward the elevator.
As I waited for the elevator, I spotted a row of frail elderly in wheelchairs lined up in what looked to be a common room.
Bingo, Thursday at 1 p.m., announced the sign outside the door.
Agh, I thought. I hope they don’t try to get my dad to play bingo. He will flat-out refuse to join.
On the third floor, I made my way down a long corridor lined with overflowing medical carts stacked with lotions, potions, and blood pressure machines. It was sad walking past the TV room filled with frail elderly women and one lone man slumped in their chairs, watching reruns of sitcoms, their heads drooping as they succumbed to the struggle to stay awake. Yellow bio-hazard boxes hung on the wall beside each room's entrance, announcing the activities within.
A tiny woman in a floral cotton dress paced up and down the corridor outside my father’s room, muttering to herself and pulling at the sleeve of her tightly buttoned cardigan sweater. She was the Serbian lady who lived across the hall from my father. Her children had done an excellent job decorating her room and had even managed subdued lighting, which lessened the institutional feel. Her hospital bed was positioned low to the ground so she could easily get in and out, something my father could not manage on his own.
My father was imprisoned by legs that no longer functioned. I hated knowing this fact and thinking about the indignity of having to ring a bell and wait for someone to come and hoist him onto the toilet with a contraption called a “patient lift.” I hated that my father had lost his autonomy.
Despite all our efforts to make his room feel as cozy as his neighbour’s across the hall, the residence was a hospital, and most of the inhabitants had dementia. On the plus side, medical care was available, which meant no further trips to the emergency room. This was the best situation for him. Still, I had trouble accepting that this was his last home, and his life was reduced to one room with a hospital bed.
My discomfort was tempered by the fact the residence was Catholic, and my father could attend Mass every day. And the people who worked with him were friendly, from the same Sikh man who was behind the reception desk on my first visit and was soon asking about my trip from Montreal and the health of my children to the caregivers and nurses of every possible ethnic origin who said hello each time we passed in the corridor. It’s hard to complain when people are nice.
Anyway, it didn’t matter what I thought about the place. My father accepted it and his losses. As always, he went with the flow — his mind and spirit, thankfully, still intact. My father remained himself. Content. Grateful. Resilient.
On several visits, I found my father seated in his wheelchair at the dining table he had been assigned to — his personal spot. Each wing of the long-term care residence had a separate dining room, so the residents did not have far to go. My father’s regular dining companion was cheerful Lillian, one of the few residents on the floor who, like him, had a clear mind. She lived in the room beside the Serbian lady and favoured oversized T-shirts and baggy sweatpants. Try as she might to engage him in conversation, my father wasn’t gifted at small talk. She seemed pleased to see me and enjoyed our chit-chats going over the same topics: where she was from (Pickering), the weather (she didn’t care because she never went outside), and her children (missing in action). I sat through the meals and chatted with Lillian while my father slowly speared each forkful and brought it shakily to his mouth. Each bite was a struggle. Many residents could not manage this and had caregivers to feed them. Some could only eat puréed food. Green rounded ice cream-like scoops for vegetables, white for potatoes, brown for meat.
On other visits, I found my dad at the end of the corridor sitting by a large window overlooking the garden below, his rosary wrapped around his fingers and his book of prayers tucked beside him. This was his preferred spot. The warm sun coming in through the window made it a comfortable spot for contemplation or a nap. If I arrived while he was saying his rosary, I would pull up a chair beside his wheelchair and put my hand on his while he continued. If I found him napping, I had only to kiss the top of his head to rouse him.
Trips to Providence became my new retirement routine. But I had a hard time accepting this was now my most frequent travel destination and the last stop for my nonagenarian father.
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alica, a heart rending story for sure but tempered by the fact your father seemed content, he would go with the flow and had a loving daughter who dutifully visited until the end. not all the frail elderly have these plusses for their final destination. you should be proud of the care you gave your dad.
A natural, peaceful, cared for decline of life lovingly described. Thank you.