Dear Family Advisor

My widowed dad lives alone and isolates himself too much.

Last updated:

March 23, 2009

My dad is elderly and has lost his hearing, but generally he's in good health. My mom died last year and Dad's in the house all alone. He won't learn sign language, and all he does is read the newspaper and sit in his recliner all day. I love my dad dearly and would welcome him into our home, but he says he doesn't want to be a burden. How can I convince him that he's wanted and that he has many more great years ahead?

Your dad has suffered two hard blows -- losing your mom and losing his ability to hear. He's probably still grieving, and he has every right to be sad and miss his wife and his hearing. Don't mistake this for clinical depression. Feelings of loss, longing, and aloneness are part of grieving. Your dad needs to work through this, so be patient with him -- don't push too hard or too fast. He's most likely scared and alone for the first time in many, many years. As you're probably grieving the loss of your mom, too, you can understand some of his feelings.

Your dad does need you, even if he doesn't say so. But try not to judge his life according to your standards. Older adults' lives don't need to be as busy as ours, and the only way to know how your dad is really doing is to be there. If you live nearby, can you stop in and visit every few days? Or call him a couple of times a day if you don't? Ideally, visit him often and just hang out with an open mind.

Men tend to be less social than women; they often don't need a lot of people in their lives but rely heavily on those who are.

While it's a big responsibility to be someone's lifeline, there are benefits for you, too. What a wonderful opportunity you have to get to know him in a whole new way. You'll see his humor, his insights and advice, what he likes and doesn't like -- just by being with him.

As much as you'd like him to move in, your dad may prefer to stay in his own home. Most older adults would rather be independent as long as they can -- and they do better physically and emotionally being in charge of their own lives. If that's the case, then try to step back and see what works for him. Make sure he's eating and sleeping OK. Maybe let him know about activities he might like, for instance, a chess club, fishing, or a social club. Ask whether he'd enjoy having a pet.

Do consider learning some basic signs to help you both communicate despite his hearing loss. Get a book or video from the library and start signing as you talk -- basic words like thank you, I love you, bathroom. He also may qualify for some hearing therapy, and that's where you pull out your daughter "Ace" card and insist that he go -- you know, the "do it for me, Dad."

Your dad's life is far from over. Be there for him, particularly during this time of grief and change. Slowly, gently, and steadily help him build his future. It may take him a while to pull out of this funk, but there's no better way than to be with someone who understands and who isn't just there to take care of you but wants to have a deep relationship with you.