Advice: Father, Dead or Alive?

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?

Signed,

Worried About the Future

 

Dear Worried,

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.

aging father napkin

If nothing else, as a fellow human, your father’s well-being should merit some legitimate concern.

THE GIBSON COCKTAIL

2.5 oz Gin (or vodka)

.5 oz Dry vermouth

Garnish: 1 Cocktail onion

Glass:  Cocktail

HOW TO MAKE THE GIBSON COCKTAIL

Add both ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice.

Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Garnish with a whole cocktail onion.

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Want to know more about The Bartender and The Priestess? Go here!

Thank you for reading. Now go tell all your friends about us. {{{heart hug}}}

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Advice: RSVP No To Anorexia

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

Right now, I am in a heated battle with my weight. It’s crept up, a little over a pound a year. When I got married thirteen years ago, I was twenty pounds lighter. Twenty pounds! My husband recently mentioned he was concerned about the weight I’d put on. Like there’s a woman alive who doesn’t realize she’s gained weight.

I’m trying all sorts of approaches. I make sure I eat healthily. I work out. I’ve had myself tested for thyroid issues, but it comes up negative. My blood work comes back stellar, so I don’t have other sneaky health problems that can be affecting my weight. And I’m desperate. What if this is me? What if I’m a chubby lady now? I had a lump in my throat just writing that sentence. One night recently, when I was alone in the house, I started Googling pointers on how I could become anorexic. Yes, really, and I know it’s a tragic health problem for the people who suffer from it. But I feel that bad about myself.

Signed,

Chubby and Hating It

 

Dear Hating It,

P: Wow. Of all the places I expected this to go, the last three sentences did not head in a direction I expected. Putting aside the frightening fact that you can Google how to become an anorexic, I’m not sure that, if I were at the point of committing slow and painful suicide in a fashion that gives you plenty of time to regret, but not a lot of options for reconsidering, I would write to an advice columnist rather than calling a shrink and making an appointment.

Having written to us, please also call a psychologist and make an appointment. I don’t think starving to death is a reasonable response to weight gain or someone’s noticing that you are who you are.

Anorexia isn’t a train that you get on at one weight and get off when you’re the “right” weight. 20 pounds is about four months of work, three if you work hard. I think you’re worth that.

B: For right now–just for right now–I will insist we take your concerns about your weight creeping up at face value. You neglect to mention how old you are, but please bear in mind that as people age–all people, mind you–they undergo a process known as sarcopenia, which is age-related loss of muscle mass. At some point in your mid-to-late 30s-ish, or 40s (you know how bodies are; they do things on their own timetable), it is simply what happens. Sarcopenia can wreak havoc with your system. Decreased muscle mass can drop your metabolism and create sneaky weight gain–which is then harder to take off because you have less muscle mass and a lower metabolism. If you haven’t already done so, you’ll want to consider adding some weight or resistance training into your workout. If you’re doing all cardio and no weights, it can defeat your efforts. Most gyms offer some kind of weight lifting class or, indeed, you could spend some time with a personal trainer and discuss your concerns. She or he could even tailor a workout regimen to suit your needs. It won’t be the magic wand that will make all your issues magically go away, but it will be good for you in any case, and a way to take action against inevitable body processes.

Now, with that being said…

P: Before you admitted that you were considering harming yourself, you seemed to be at an interesting place. Aware of the weight gain, but very aware of the rest of your numbers. And unable to complain about your overall health. What if you were just chubby, you ask… and is 5 pounds, or even 15 more, chubby?

Putting aside the husband’s need for a particular silhouette, how much of your self-worth is invested in looking a particular way? Because if you’re considering anorexia, you’re not worried about being in shape, you’re worried about your shape.

You’re willing to put your entire well-being on hold because your husband pointed out (yes, unnecessarily, did he think you didn’t notice you can’t button the old jeans?) that you’re gaining weight. Where’s your self-esteem?

B: Oh, honey. I am so sorry you feel this way about yourself. You did ask: What if this is you right now? So I want to know…what do you mean, what if? I’m not echoing your point to try and make you feel bad, I am saying this because it IS you right now. You’re everywhere–thirteen years in the past, projecting into an indeterminate future–except right here in the present. This is you, right now. And the you that comes across in this letter is someone willing to invest all her feelings of self-worth into a number on a scale and a dress size. There’s a fantastic line in The Devil Wears Prada wherein a character, talking about her new diet, says she is “…one stomach flu away from her goal weight.” And she says that with the unspoken implication that if she encountered someone with a stomach flu on the subway, she’d sit right next to him or her in hopes of picking it up.

And, it’s implied that that’s ragingly unhealthy, and underscores a skewed system of personal values.

I understand as well as anybody the pressure on women to be thin. I’ve struggled for years with my own body image. I am a meaty woman, and even though I work as a Zumba instructor I still carry extra weight. It can be deflating if you let it get to you. Thin = attractive, thin = still competitive against more youthful women. Thin women are beautiful and beautiful women have fewer problems, right?

Only that’s not true. If thin and beautiful were the answers to every relationship problem, then Halle Berry wouldn’t have two divorces (and an impending third) under her belt. I feel like you’ve got a voice in your head that’s on a permanent loop telling you, “If only you could look like you looked when you were 25…if only you were super-thin again…if only you could look like you looked…”. If only, for any of us, and it doesn’t help that we are constantly bombarded by images of skinny women, who only seem to offer being skinny as a testament to their success and social worth (I’m looking at you, Kendall Jenner.) Thin doesn’t solve everything. Thin doesn’t solve anything, except how to fit into a smaller pair of jeans.

It doesn’t have an interest in Russian literature or know how to make killer pancakes. It doesn’t love watching quirky TV shows with your hubby or have a weirdly innate understanding of how to do one’s own taxes. It is only, just, thin. Thin doesn’t make you who you are, any more than the comment some boy said to you in fourth grade should define you. We learn. We grow. We are greater than the sum of our parts.

P: I don’t even feel like I should say to you, talk to your husband and let him know that you are so freaked out by his noticing your weight gain, whether or not it was noticing or judging, that you considered doing something dastardly — because the problem is so much bigger than your gaining weight or his being judgmental. The horror is that you’re lost in this.

If there are relationship issues here, you can’t talk to your husband about until you get some help for your self-esteem. Please go do that. So if you’re going to have that conversation with him, don’t try to solve any issues, just say that it was jarring and hard to hear — and was it necessary to say? — and that your response to his question terrified you and you’re going to do something about that. In the meantime, he can figure out if he wants to have the perfect wife or the perfectly shaped wife.

B: By all means, continue to eat healthily and meet with a personal trainer to devise a personalized exercise plan. And PLEASE talk to your husband, to let him know just how bad his comment about yourself made you feel. If he loves you, he should be appropriately horrified and realize that a different course of action needs to be taken. And go see a therapist, or AT THE VERY LEAST contact the National Eating Disorders Association and talk to a professional there. You’ve got some pernicious body image issues that are impacting you right now, in a potentially life-threatening way.

It's not worth your health. Get help today.

It’s not worth your health–or your life. Get help today.

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Thank you for reading. Now go tell all your friends about us. {{{heart hug}}}

Advice: Eating Disorders, Honesty, and Marriage

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I have always believed that couples are allowed to keep portions of themselves locked away from their partners. You know, the part where we keep our deep secrets, where we can turn thoughts over as we work to understand how these thoughts and memories and philosophies have helped shape us into the people we become. (I mean, does my husband need to know that when I was a kid I had a secret crush on Walter Matthau? But he was so funny..!) My husband similarly keeps things to himself; I didn’t know about when he nearly got expelled from high school, until we had been together for quite a while. Suffice it to say, we both have our skeletons, and I think they can, for the most part, stay deep in our respective closets.

I do struggle more with some issues than other, however. For more than a decade, I’ve hidden my binge eating from my husband. It kind of didn’t matter. I was handling it, you know? And it wasn’t like it was something I did every day. I reasoned that I would keep it from him because it was my problem, not his, and…OK, I admit it, I’m ashamed of it. And I’ve started to realize just how bad this is for me.

I need to fix this. It’s not going away, and I am not getting better. My kids are getting older, and I don’t want them to normalize any of my behavior. I feel so trite when I think about by binge eating, because it connects to a litany of problems. Oh, great, I’m Therapy Girl. But I need to be free of this, and I have to say…I have no idea what to say to my husband. What’s my opener? Hey, honey, funny story, but I thought you should know I compulsively cram food in my mouth until I’m ready to burst, and then tearfully throw out all the evidence?

Sincerely,

Sick And Tired Of All This

Dear Sick and Tired,

B: Indeed, you are absolutely right. A coupled relationship is made of two separate individuals, both of whom have the right to keep some things…

HOLY POCKETS! Hold the phone! Wait one second…did you just compare having an oddball man-crush (for the record, I crush on Oliver Platt, want to make something of it?) with having an eating disorder?

You do realize, these two things are not legitimate comparatives, right? That’s not a matter of pitting apples vs. oranges, that’s like trying to compare apples vs. nuclear submarines.

What I find interesting, and heartbreaking, is the way you diminish yourself and your issues under a jokey mask. You ha-ha, push away, then denigrate yourself for being some kind of pathetic “Therapy Girl”. Do you think you don’t deserve to spend time on yourself? Does asking for help give you heartburn?

I understand, it can be incredibly difficult to admit that you’re vulnerable. That you have a problem, that you need help. There is a culture in the US that glorifies the idea that you can A) pull yourself up by your bootstraps as you B) stoically suffer in silence. You know what that brings? Worn out boots and endless suffering. And, in your case, a face full of whatever’s in the fridge. I want you to repeat after me: THERE IS NO SHAME IN GETTING HELP WHEN I NEED IT. THERE IS NO SHAME IN GETTING HELP WHEN I NEED IT. Again. THERE IS NO SHAME IN GETTING HELP WHEN I NEED IT.

P: I’m really glad you wrote to us, because it means you’re scared enough to do something about it. Terri’s points are really well taken. There is no shame in getting help, in fact, there are only kudos for thinking you’re worth it.

I think you’re missing the point that this isn’t just a shameful habit, it’s a disease that is harmful to you. Eating disorders aren’t a problem just because you’re controlling your world through food (and of course binge eating is giving up all control), they do your body damage.

You’re owning up to living with this for at least a decade. Now is the time to get help. This isn’t about calling a therapist (this isn’t JUST about calling a therapist.) This is about calling your doctor immediately and getting enrolled in a program.

Many food disorders need to be dealt with in live-in programs. This could be a question of life or death. I think writing to us is a statement that you’re willing to choose life. Because nobody writes to the Bartender and the Priestess thinking we’re going to say, there, there, don’t bother.

I’ve known two people who died of eating disorders and many who have spent years in in-house programs. We don’t want this to be you. We want you to live and be happy and healthy.

We hope you want the same.

B: What Ann says. Binge-eating isn’t just a “thing”. You don’t have a weirdo quirk, like having to put your left shoe on before you put on your right. And it’s not like having an inexplicable crush on a potato-faced celebrity. You have a legitimate disorder and it is serious. Your binge eating could impact your health in the long run, as it has been shown to contribute to various diseases, like type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, and certain cancers, just to name a few.

P: Of course, ultimately, you’re right in that this is your problem. Addictions have family implications, but they’re an individual’s problem and disease. It’s the weird thing about addictions — They are diseases, to be sure; but they’re also a problem. It is up to you to decide you’re worth saving. This is your chance. Take it. Do something with it.

And, this is your partner, your mate, to whom you promised faithfulness. Lying about anything is cheating. Lying about addiction that is potentially harmful to you and to your family system is big time cheating. Marriages need honesty: first, with yourself; then, with each other. Hell, every relationship needs honesty. Who else are you lying to? And is being a liar how you want to think of yourself? No, it’s not. So you need to stop. However painful that is. But when you’re telling the truth, remember, you’ve said you’d handle this for years now. You haven’t — because it is both a problem and a disease.

So now you need to try something different, something that admits the imperfections, (everyone has them, know that, everyone), and starts working on honesty in self and in marriage. Imagine a life where you had no dirty, little secrets. It would be so freeing. It would be so healthy.

B: Why do you think your husband doesn’t need to know this? If he were, say, an alcoholic, do you think it would be his problem and his alone to manage? I would hope you’d say, of course not. I would hope you’d say, I married you, and we are a unit, and I will be there to support you as you struggle to regain control of your life. I would hope you wouldn’t say, “La la, your problem, bud, not mine. See you later!” And if you would say that to your life partner, then I would have to ask, why are you even married? We are supposed to find comfort and support in a relationship, not every-man-for-himself-ism.

P: You have children. Giving life means honoring it. It means honoring your own life and sticking around to raise the ones you brought to life. You need to model good health. You owe them the healthiest you you can possibly give them.

PS, your children probably know more about your disease than you think. You probably spend more vulnerable moments with them than with your husband. You’re used to hiding it from your husband; in even the closest marriages, you have a lot of time apart. The kids are with you and they’re always watching. And learning. Do you want to teach your kids to binge, or do you want to teach them that it’s really, really unhealthy.

And kids have a keen nose for lying. You not only want them to think their health is important, you want them not to lie. Lying’s a lousy way to go through life… you’re recognizing that now. That’s what you came to us wanting to change.

You also want them to know they can trust the people they love — family and friends to know the worst about you and love you still.

B: I’m glad that you’re motivated by not wanting this behavior to seen normal to your children, because they deserve better than to have to grow up under the burden of your issues. I just wish your primary motivation was because you loved yourself too much to keep hurting yourself. You talk about your concerns about your husband (does he really need to know…) and your concerns about your children, but where is your concern for you? When you finally say you know it’s bad for you, you immediately counter that by declaring yourself “trite”. Oh, dearest. How I wish you would make yourself a priority.

Going back to your initial question: yes, it is OK to keep skeletons in the closet. If you cheated on your high school boyfriend, learned life lessons from your un-stellar behavior, and don’t feel like that needs to be listed on your disclosure sheet, that’s fine. I don’t think anyone in a relationship needs to discuss former lovers, their “number”, or what your aspirations at age 12 were for your adult career. I don’t think you necessarily have to talk about your awkward period, what color bike you had, when you had your first beer, or any of that. UNLESS it is still impacting your life. You had your first beer at 15 and haven’t stopped drinking yet? Disclose. You cheated on your high school boyfriend and now he’s stalking you? Disclose. When you were 12 you really wanted to be a marine biologist but your parents would only send you to school for accounting, and you’re still resentful and angry about it? Disclose.

You have a potentially life-threatening eating disorder that you’ve struggled with for a decade?

Disclose.

There’s no way to soften the telling, there’s no jokey mask to hide behind. Send the kids away for an overnight with a babysitter, then sit your husband down and talk to him. Just say it. Write it down if you need to, so you have a script in front of you that you can simply read. Forbid him from speaking until you’re done, if you think you don’t have the wherewithal to get past interruptions. But for mercy’s sake, tell him. And then make yourself a priority, so you can let the healing begin.

P: Right. This is not an insignificant issue that might make him think less of you; this is your life, and your sense of self worth. Even if you think he’s going to bolt if you tell him, hiding this is not an option; not if you’re going to get better. I do think you have a couple options in the way you tell him. Which will feel better to you? Which will help him cope?

Do what the Beautiful Bartender suggests: Make the time and the space, tell him.

See your doctor; be clear with the doc and yourself that this is an emergency. Be ruthlessly honest. Find out what your options are — and then, sit down and do what the Beautiful Bartender suggests.

Bottom line: Care for yourself, as much as you care for your family.

Bottom line: Care for yourself, as much as you care for your family.

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