Dear Bartender and Priestess,
I am concerned about my 80 year old father. He’s a widower, and the last of his siblings. When he was younger he was a force to be reckoned with—one of those strong, confident Mad Men sort of businessmen—but he’s been retired for a while, and has lost touch with a lot of his old contacts thanks to time or their passing. He doesn’t go out much, and so he doesn’t really take care of himself. He never shaves, he has crazy-man hair, his clothes don’t fit and he’s got dirt caked under his fingernails. I feel like he’s just not concerned about his appearance any more.
What I’m really worried about is what to do about his appearance once he dies. Does a funeral home handle things like a shave and a haircut? His scraggly look doesn’t really represent the man he is. Part of me wants to ask him about this, but I’ve never been able to talk to my father man-to-man. I worry that I’ll get tongue-tied, or end up hurting his feelings. Can you give me some feedback?
Worried About the Future
B: It can be extraordinarily difficult to manage the demands of an aging parent. Interpersonal dynamics can get twisted when the traditional roles associated with parent and child (caregiver and dependent) flip-flop. Fortunately for you, you’ve turned a blind eye to all of that.
P: In today’s world, we’ve allowed ourselves to be so disconnected from life that we don’t know a lot about what can happen as we age. There’s actually a lot of info around about the life cycle, but it seems enough of us aren’t taking advantage. What you’re seeing is your father’s deterioration. Handsome, snappily-dressed men don’t suddenly stop caring, something happens — disease, depression, addiction, stroke, who knows — that makes them unable to care for themselves.
What’s sad is that you’ve let your father wander down this road without stepping in. What’s great is that you’re now ready. Before you do anything, I suggest you spend an evening with your computer googling. Google really is your friend.
Doctors are also your friends. Do you have a family doctor? Make an appointment to talk to her. Find out what you should do for your dad. Call your dad’s doctor. Or call up your local Area Agency on Aging and tell them your father’s in trouble and you need some help. Because, and you need to understand this, your dad’s in trouble…
And then try real friends. If you don’t have siblings, do you have friends your own age who have aging parents? Or friends that are Social workers?
I’m guessing that if you ask in the break room you’ll find someone who knows something and that you’re not the only person trying to figure out what happened to your formerly strong and stylish parent.
B: What you’re missing is his specious hygiene represents exactly who he is now. It doesn’t represent who you want him to be, but it’s who he is. And you know, I get it. You’re thinking of your dad when he was young. Mad-Men-esque. Suave, glib, handsome, right? Dirty fingernails and wild hair is so not that guy. But he’s so not that guy any longer, so you need to stop looking backwards and bring your vision into the future. Coming to grips with an aging parent is difficult. Understanding your father’s mortality means you get a glimpse into your own mortality. Who wants to think about their own Big Sleep? Or, the process that takes you to the end, with the myriad physical and mental issues that accompany the aging process? It’s not pretty, but if we get old we go through it. We can only hope we will go through it with someone who cares enough to ask the right questions if our personal aging process becomes burdensome.
P: In addition to whatever is wrong with your father, his lack of cleanliness is not healthy for him. What’s his refrigerator look like? What’s he eating? Is he capable of feeding himself? You haven’t exhibited a lot of concern for your father other than wanting things to look good when he dies, but my guess is, from the little story you’re telling, that it’s not a warm relationship. Even if that’s the case, you do yourself no favor by not trying to fix things. You can do this from a distance. If there’s no money, social services doesn’t like to let human beings dissolve and die, call them and let them get involved. Don’t want to do it for your dad? Think about doing it for another human being — any human being — and take care of it that way.
B: The likelihood is very high that your father is unwell and needs to see a doctor. The only way you’ll know if he just doesn’t care, or if he’s got deeper problems to manage, is by checking it out. And if you want to actually do something that can further your understanding of where he is mentally and physically, you need to go with him when he goes to the doctor. Get over your discomfort and talk to him. Any relationship issues you may have with your dad stopped being relevant when your father stopped cleaning himself properly. It’s how we adult. It can be hard to take on that mantle when you’re dealing with your own adults, but compassion should point us in the direction of caring, and the reach for understanding.
Of course, if all you want to do is mark time until he dies, then by all means, just worry about the shave and a haircut.
I hope you choose adult compassion. Your father deserves it.
P: Who you are as an individual and what you expect out of life is as much at stake here as your father’s health. Old age can include disease. It always includes deterioration. In our society, we all want to pretend that we will always be strong and vital. We turn our children into tiny sex objects and pretend that 60 is the new 20. It’s not.
We come into being; we grow up; we mature; we age. Each and every one of us. We all need help in each and every one of these stages. And we all need to be helpers. All of us need to be helpers.
I’m trying really hard here not to jump up and down and ask you, “where is your humanity?” Because really, even if you have a lousy relationship with him, have you no feeling for another person? You don’t say that he’s a horrible person; but your disregard for him doesn’t say he’s beloved. I’m not asking you to mend your relationship with this man, even though, trust me, it needs mending! Among the things your father suffers from is neglect — not his neglecting his hygiene, your neglect of him. Please, help him. And then, this is not what you want to take forward with you into the future. This is not who you want to be as a man. No one wants to be the person who doesn’t see another’s suffering.
Unless of course you do. And then, there’s not much that Terri or I can say.
But even if you do, pick up a phone and call social services. Someone needs to take care of this man while he’s alive. Because there is no reason for him to live like this, other than you don’t care to care for him. Before you wrote to us, you could plead ignorance. Now you’re done.
And after you get the life part figured out, here’s some information from an expert. Because they will care for your dad… Actually it seems they’ll care for him whether or not you do. I’m going to trust that you will however do what is right.
This just in from Patti Fitchett, friend of BnP and a professional undertaker: I don’t know anything about while he is alive, but once this person’s father dies, I have some words of advice from a funeral director. First of all, every person who will have any kind of public viewing (such as a wake or visitation with the body lying in state) or even a private viewing (a few family members come into the funeral home to say their goodbyes before cremation takes place) will be thoroughly washed, shampooed and given a shave. Even women are shaved, (and not just those in the hot-flash years) because it helps the cosmetics that are used to look better.
For any viewing, attention will be paid to the person’s fingernails, hair and the fit of their clothing. Funeral directors have tricks to make baggy clothes lay more naturally and to help tight clothing not appear uncomfortable. A public viewing of this kind can be very healing to a family. Sometimes when a loved one is decimated by disease or the ravages of aging, a talented funeral director can give the family a beautiful memory of peace and grace. As far as clothing, new clothing can be purchased, or the person’s own clothes can be cleaned and used. (Nobody HAS to wear a suit!)
A good funeral director will never be judgmental about your loved one. So even if your dad has a scraggly beard and crazy old man hair, we will know that he is your dad and that you love him. That is the spirit of the trade.
Celebrity advisor bio: Patti Fitchett is a licensed funeral director in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She writes a monthly column in her local paper titled “Matters of Life & Death”. In her spare time, she loves to laugh.
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