Q: My father is older (77) and tells me one thing about his life, then tells my sister another version, then my brother another version. We’re all trying to help him, but we don’t know what the ‘clear’ picture is. What are we supposed to do? His health isn’t the best, but from what my brother says, it’s a lot worse than I thought it was. We’re all good children, and we just want to help him.
A: As my father always says, “Aging isn’t for sissies.” And it isn’t. Here you are, used to being vigorous and able to do anything in the world. You had stamina, mental alertness, physical strength, and now? Well, now you can’t see or hear so well, you need to nap a lot, you get tired out just going to the fridge for some orange juice, you can’t remember if you’ve taken your vitamins today, and what was that other thing?—you forgot what it was. You’ve got pride: you’ve raised your children, you’ve taken care of them, supported them, but now the tables are turning, and it’s not so easy anymore.
I’m seeing that your dad is like that. He took pride in his ability to father all of you and take care of you. He was very strong and capable, so the very fact that all of that has changed is causing him no small degree of angst. If you look at the roles each of you three children has played in his life, that may give you some hints as to why he’s saying what he’s saying (differently to all three of you).
It’s like he’s compartmentalizing his relationships, and just telling you the things that he’s comfortable sharing with you, in the way and to the degree that he’s always done.
So if you were the compassionate one, he probably will share that vulnerable side with you, because you’ve already established that trust. If your sister was the “get things done” one, he’ll probably share the things he needs help with. If your brother was the “I can’t deal with much because I’m so sensitive” one, your dad probably won’t tell him much of anything.
So while it looks like you’re getting three different stories, they are actually just three different sides of the same story, just not told all at once or together as one story.
I would suggest you keep in close communication with your two siblings to compare notes. If you combine all three stories you will (hopefully) get the complete story. It looks like your dad is tired, but in relatively good health. He’s got some regrets about his life, so it may help to encourage him to talk about his life, not judging, just listening. It also looks like there are some things he’d like to talk to you three about, regarding events in your childhood. Again, if you can put on your big girl panties (or big boy panties) and deal with it, you can gently start talking about your childhood with him, and see if it leads him into talking. Then just listen. I think that’s the most important gift we can give to our elders - the gift of compassionate listening. Oh, and love.
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