Dear Family Advisor

My dad talks about dying all the time -- and it's not good for him or me!

Last updated:

February 23, 2011
OlderManWhiteLight

My 79-year-old dad has moved in with me while he's recovering from open-heart surgery. Before the surgery we talked about him staying here for three or four months and then looking for a condo nearby.

Now he's all doom and gloom. He made me drive to the cemetery with him to check on his lot and order his tombstone, and he's written out instructions for his funeral. He talks about "when I'm gone" and "I don't have long" all the time -- even in the grocery store and to perfect strangers. It's really wearing on me, and I've gone from trying to encourage him to simply being frustrated.

How do I help him have hope and purpose again -- or at least stop complaining all the time?

Your dad is just voicing his fears -- and he may be a bit of a drama dude as well. A lot of this is about control. We can't call the shots, but we can change our perspective. If it's only been a few months since his surgery and he's not normally like this, then be patient and expect his natural personality to eventually resurface.

Depression and heart disease go hand in hand. There are many studies that show this connection, and some of the medications he has to take right now could also be contributing to the problem. Talk to his doctors about these concerns, and don't forget to encourage your dad to talk to a therapist, his clergy, or a trusted friend. He has a lot to work through, so give him the time and space he needs.

If it really gets bad, though, try calling his bluff. People like to vent and make a big deal out of things, but they don't expect or even want us to actually agree with them. Use a bit of humor and sarcasm to lighten the subject. Ask him if he'd like to go by the funeral home and check it out, or bring his tombstone home. Only you know how much you can tease him, but some gentle nudging might help him loosen up a bit.

You can also encourage him to plan out everything to the nth degree. After he's taken care of all the details, he may feel more at peace. Or he may not like you butting in, and then you can tell him that while you understand how scary all this is, his preoccupation means he's missing out on the day-to-day moments he still has.

My mom was similar, and the daily "I could go at any time" outbursts really got on my nerves. Try blocking it out, changing the subject, or putting on some music or an audio book. Or clap loudly and say in a strong voice, "This isn't healthy for me. If you keep it up, I'll have to leave the room" -- and then do leave the room if he keeps it up.

Remember also that while your life is full and chaotic, your dad's isn't right now. Does he spend time with friends his own age who could serve as good role models? It's easy to stew in your own problems when there's no one around you can relate to. Make sure he gets out of the house regularly. Most communities have great outings and activities for seniors. Get him together with other older men and women who've adjusted to life's curveballs (illness, losing spouses, moves, and other inevitable changes).

Meanwhile, as soon as his health stabilizes, go ahead and take him to look at condos. If your dad can live nearby and you can maintain a sense of privacy while still being able to keep an eye him, I think both of your stress levels will begin to subside. And he'll be much better at creating his own daily routine, connecting with friends, and settling into his new life.

Your dad agreed to heart surgery because he wanted to live and feel better. Do all you can to steer him in that positive direction again. Surround him (and yourself) with upbeat movies, enjoyable outings, and new connections. Be an example -- a person with a vibrant life and a circle of close friends. Show him that life can indeed be good again.