Notes from the Family Classroom
About the Author
Rosemary De Cuir received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from California State University, Fullerton in 1986 and began her multifaceted career in senior services in 1987. Her path included positions as supervisor of a senior center, sales and marketing director/corporate trainer for several national assisted living companies, developer of an RCFE dementia care program in Los Angeles, in addition to accepting speaking regular speaking engagements for a wide variety of audiences – her favorites of which include students of gerontology and nursing. She founded Alliance Family Advocates in 2005 as a geriatric care consultant and family mediation specialist.
Rosemary De Cuir
Life without purpose is colorless and without cheer
I recently visited my 92-year-old father, a bright, vital senior whom I’ve watched struggle in his life with challenges of his own, including diabetes, macular degeneration, raising a daughter with a developmental disability, overseeing the care of a needy mother and most recently, coping with watching his spouse of 60 years deal with short-term memory deficits. Dad has always been known for his optimistic, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-attack-it perspective towards tackling the difficulties that arise for all of us from time to time. I asked him once the secret of how he manages to bend and flex (“shift gears” in car parlance) and he answered that he made a conscious decision as a young man to always work with a problem and not against it – thus demystifying a sobering or frightening prospect and facing it head on.
However, Dad was different on the day of my visit. He was sitting somberly at his desk, staring into space and looking at a file of papers that contained information about his car. Dad had very reluctantly renounced his driving privilege about five years earlier, when it had become apparent that the combination of his visual limitations and slower reflexes were endangering his ability to drive safely. He’d had a few near misses that had frightened the family. After much discussion and a follow-up consultation with the DMV, all agreed that he should no longer operate a motor vehicle. This was a blow to someone who had (like all of us) loved the independence one has when “mobile.” Dad had driven nearly seventy years; an intelligent, thoughtful person, he realized that there would be many repercussions and adjustments as a result of this decision.
As always, he deliberately and quietly assimilated the unhappy thoughts and feelings (so typical of the stoicism of that generation) and respected the ruling of the department and the wishes of his family. Consistent with his lifetime of disciplined practices, he would rise early for private time of prayer and reflection, exercise, then retreat to his little art studio to play his beloved music from the big band era and work on an oil painting. Of late, his vision impairment demanded that stronger lighting be set up (along with a magnifying glass for closeup evaluation of his work) and some fatigue required the use of a stool that he could perch on when needed. His skill at producing beautiful oil paintings – particularly portraits – remained intact despite the need to pause for periodic rest breaks. Dad would lose himself in the pleasure of creating.
Fully five years after he and given up the car, it was apparent that Dad was still very troubled by this occurrence – to the point that he simply couldn’t marshal his usual disciplined approach to the problem. He was stuck. I initiated a conversation about finding meaning in our lives. We talked about shifting our focus from what we’ve lost to what we still have. The trick was to figure out how to do it and the rest would be taken care of. Providentially, I had just had a conversation with a friend about a sad story of a 12-year-old girl struggling with Pick’s Disease (the juvenile cousin to Alzheimer Disease). She had been declining since first diagnosed at age of 5 and was bed bound, cared for by ’round-the-clock nurses. Her parents were financially strapped due to the exorbitant costs of care. The tale of woe included the father losing his job along with the extreme pressure of being “on” all the time due to fear that their precious child could die at any time.
A thought had popped into my head when speaking with my friend. “Have your friends any portraits of their little girl?” “No way,” she said, “they’ve been so busy the last seven years that I don’t think they even have any photos.” Right then I knew this could become an important window of opportunity for both my Dad and the little girl’s family. I approached my father about painting Jessica (the little girl). After hearing the details of the case, he was intrigued, sympathetic, and agreed immediately. I asked my friend to say nothing to Jessica’s parents but to find a photograph. She produced a beautiful one of a five-year-old in a woodland fairy costume (taken the last Halloween before she became ill). Her infectious smile, impish expression, and sweet little face were adorable.
A week or so later, Dad called me to come over and view the finished results. “Your mom and I fell in love with her during this week,” he said with a broad smile. Dad matted and framed the painting (figuring that was something that the parents would hardly have the time or money to do) and we presented it to my friend, who would deliver the likeness to the family (who lived many miles away and weren’t up to having visitors). When she called me the next day, she said that the little girl’s parents had cried upon seeing it, and Jessica, who is largely non-verbal at this point, smiled and said, “That’s ME!”
My father is one of many seniors that I encounter in my work as a geriatric care consultant. Retirement, ill health, decline or death of a spouse, financial downturns – these are all situations which can slide from the “problematic” category into a catastrophic one if not addressed aggressively. I was concerned that my dad, like so many of my clients, could drift into a depressive state that would only worsen if not handled soon. My father was blessed with the realization that he might be limited in terms of physical mobility; he is still capable of making an impact on people’s lives in a meaningful and powerful way. This privilege is one he need never worry about having revoked or taken away. He just needed me to remind him that he can “take it on the road” anywhere, to anyone, anytime his heart desires.