How to cheer up an ill parent
February 21, 2014 11:43 AM   Subscribe

My dad's cancer has come back and he's lost a lot of energy in the last year. In the next few weeks, we and his doctors will be discussing treatment/chemo options. What can I do for him?

He seems really down lately. He can't eat much due to nausea, and he has little energy to do much beyond lie on his bed, watch the occasional movie, listen to the radio, and read the newspaper.

I'm a recent college grad on the job hunt, and most days I'm at home, so I have a lot of time with him. What can I do to help him out?

My dad has never been very talkative, has few hobbies (watching Western movies and playing chess amongst them, but I hate both activities tbh), and as far as I know, doesn't have any close friends. So far I've taken to regularly finding potentially interesting DVDs for him (a tough task!), encouraged his interests in chess and history by finding related books, but I think I could be doing more for him. And trying to be more patient with him during this difficult time. It's so hard when he's grumpy or insanely pessimistic.

Any suggestions or strategies or stories about dealing with elderly/possibly terminally ill parents appreciated. Thanks in advance, I'll be back to answer any questions.
posted by myntu to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Offer to watch a Western with him, maybe something really old or something he hasn't seen in awhile. It doesn't matter that you don't like them. Making the gesture is nice enough.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:46 AM on February 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Can you watch movies WITH him? Or maybe ask him if there is anything specific you could do to make him more comfortable? What about getting him an iPad that he can play chess (and other games) on?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:47 AM on February 21, 2014

Agreed with the above. When I was doing hospice volunteer caregiving, I spent a crazy amount of time just hanging out with people while they watched their shows. They didn't have the energy to converse or interact, but they really appreciated the company.

You might also think about audiobooks or reading to him. Depending on the person, that could be much appreciated.

This book, How Can I Help?, was of great assistance to me in learning how to frame the concept of service in my life.
posted by janey47 at 12:05 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does he have the energy to play simple card games? You could play something like Go Fish when you've run out of movies or Westerns to watch. Six simple card games.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:44 PM on February 21, 2014

Just hang out with him. You'll treasure the days you had 1:1 time with him.

Try to learn an appreciation of the Western. I'm not a fan either, but a good movie is a good movie.

Start with the classics like High Noon (which is done in real time. The 90 minutes of the movie take place from 10:30 in the morning until noon. Another good one is Stagecoach.

Do you like Film Noir? How about Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity? Those can be fun. I suspect that those are films your Dad would enjoy.

Do you have any connections for pot? Would your Dad be adverse to having some to help him with his appetite? Would you be willing to make a Taco Bell and Oreo run?

Even if you're just in the room reading a book with him, I'm sure he'll appreciate your presence.

You're doing a great job there kid. Hang in there!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:54 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Let me preface my advice by saying my brother died of lung cancer. I would recommend reading website information on the experiences of those going through the process of cancer and treatment. Understand that you cannot know what it's like to be in their position, and withdrawal is a very common emotional pattern. Our family also compelled him to undergo a lot of repeat chemotherapy, brain surgery, trials and treatments I now regret. At one point, he began to refuse treatment, and my family pressured me to pressure him to keep undergoing the treatments. It took a cancer counselor to get through to me that I wasn't respecting his perspective. I offer this advice with every good intention. Read up on it.
posted by effluvia at 12:58 PM on February 21, 2014

Can you pick up a Roku and a Netflix streaming account? That way he can try a bunch of movies (or a new TV series!) out without going to the store each time. For a $10/month investment, it's a great way of getting lots of old movies available. There are lots of Westerns and history documentaries that he might really enjoy.

Roku has a bunch of streaming movie apps, including those that focus on old movies. The Roku 3 has a headphone port in the remote control, so he could have the TV on even if other people are doing something in the living room. It connects to most TVs but if your dad has a very old TV, you might want to double check the settings first.

Is an iPad or other tablet a possibility? He could play games on it, either old games or new games, catch up on news, weather, etc. It's also a way of video chatting with family if that's of interest. And music - lots of folks forget how much they loved the music while they were growing up and young adults. The streaming music services on the ipad are awesome.

Beyond that, what about setting up a puzzle table for the two of you? It's kind of a quiet, methodical but social activity. Doesn't require much chit-chat but there is a focused energy to finding the next piece together.

Word search books are nice - they are easy to pick up and put down as energy and attention cycle throughout the day.

Make sure you have room for him to not be himself, and to not feel great. The goal isn't to cheer him up, it's to spend time with him, give him space, provide some socialization and comfort, and help him with daily chores. He might be feeling awful that his kid has to see him at his worst - and worse, the kid wants him to "cheer up". Make sure you don't have high expectations in terms of his emotional and mental health during a very difficult time.

Finally, talk to his providers about depression, if you can. It's an extremely common problem among elderly and terminally ill patients, and it's not impossible to treat. Even if the underlying disease can't be cured, depression can be addressed through a variety of options, and it's OK to ask about addressing it.
posted by barnone at 1:09 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

UNCONVENTIONAL ADVICE: Sometimes when a person is diagnosed with a serious illness, depression can come from not knowing what kind of end-of-life care they will have (this comes up a lot for me). It's mostly the "not-knowing" and the worry that comes from someone else having to take care of all of their end-of-life issues. I humbly suggest tiptoeing into a conversation about end-of-life care, funeral plans, and estate plans. Sometimes when people know that all the plans are set, there is nothing left to worry about and they can relax.
posted by ColdChef at 2:07 PM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

And trying to be more patient with him during this difficult time. It's so hard when he's grumpy or insanely pessimistic.

Patience is wonderful, and very much what I expect he needs, and you are great to recognize it. He may also not need "cheering up" so much as empathy and gentleness. Even if he's not terminal right now, cancer (especially recurrent cancer) forces a person to face their own mortality, which for most people is unsettling and painful, to say the least.

I agree with ColdChef's advice to see if there's a way to ease delicately into a conversation about any of the end-of-life planning questions that he may be worried about. Also, see if there's a way you can lead the conversation to letting him know that you love him and what you appreciate about him (as a father or as a person). I think one of the most serious fears people have at this time is the fear of their life not having mattered much. Let him know that it has.
posted by scody at 2:58 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe you can find a survey online with some fun/interesting questions to ask him, maybe about his childhood, adult life, interests, etc. You can even have a notebook where you jot down some of his responses. I know he's not talkative, but maybe he'll respond to some direct questions, and it'll give him a chance to share some stories and perhaps look back and take stock of his life, hopefully in a positive way. That might afford him some peace. It also shows that you care enough to want to learn about him. And maybe you guys can take turns answering the questions so he doesn't feel like he's being grilled.
posted by madonna of the unloved at 4:05 PM on February 21, 2014

Here are some things that worked very well for me. I was in a similar situation and was my fathers caretaker for many years.

If you can, try to get him outside just for little walks. The sunshine and fresh air will be very helpful in cheering someone up, even if its just down the block a little it will immediately help. If he can't get outside, try a sunlamp.

If you have a public library nearby, take him there. This will give him time to browse for books and movies in the genre he likes. There are usually a good amount of westerns at public libraries and he might find a movie he's wanted to see but hasn't been able to.

Talk to him about the movies, get him discussing what he loves so much about them. This may bring out aspects of his personality and character that you may not know. And these moments are treasures in so many ways.

Just sitting with him while he reads will be nice for him and he'll appreciate the company.

Also, talking with him about what he likes to eat is a great way to start conversation. If there's a particular dish he hasn't had in a while, he'd probably love eating it.

Hang in there, what you're going through is tough and don't forget to also take good care of yourself. Good luck!
posted by lullu73 at 6:52 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

World of Warcraft. Seriously.

It doesn't require much energy expenditure or even the ability to sit up (you can play on a laptop while lying in bed) and it's so engrossing that a few people have literally died from exhaustion after playing for several days straight. So if you're looking for an activity that will transport his mind to a happier place and distract from his pain and worries, WoW is a proven champion at that.

The two of you could play together while you're home, and then he could play on an alt character while you're out. Get headsets for voice chat and make sure to get involved in a guild and the other social aspects of the game. Soon he could have a bunch of new friends to play and chat with at any time of the day or night.

If you think Warcraft might be too complicated for him, then perhaps find a simpler game. Just look for something that has the same sort of social aspects and is known for being "addictive."
posted by Jacqueline at 4:22 PM on February 23, 2014

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