Gordon Smyth knows firsthand the pitfalls and challenges people face as they search for ideal senior care for an aging parent. “The beginning of my journey,” he told us, “was my mom’s passing in 1999.” The next 20 years had many twists and turns, as he shared with us.
Initially after being widowed, his “dad moved from London to Lindsay for a change, but mostly to be near his brothers and sisters, and in-laws.” Living in the town of Lindsay had its pleasantries, but there were also “the mishaps and circumstances that tend to befall older people," says Gordon.
He had to give up his drivers’ license, for one thing, and soon after, he fell in his condo and broke his ankle. After several years in Lindsay, Bill decided he wanted to move back to London. “My brother did some online research and found Masonville Manor, which was newly opened. We had a tour and dad decided it was the right fit for him, so we moved him in.”
As with many older people, Gordon’s father became increasingly vulnerable to falls. During a visit to his daughter near Oshawa, he slipped and broke his hip. Since Masonville Manor didn’t have any respite care, the family was forced to move him to Longworth Retirement, also in London, to recuperate. “My sister-in-law’s mother lived there and she recommended it. We checked it out, and dad said it was fine. He stayed for a few months, but for personal reasons, he thought it wasn’t for him.” As Gordon says, his dad is “not the most social person in the world.” The family went back to the drawing board, and discussed again, where they thought Bill should go. “This, too, was a bit of a long story,” says Gordon, but eventually he went to Richmond Woods.
Through these several moves, the family was getting better at the research process. “Dad now set out a list of wants,” says Gordon. Roles were assigned. “My brother and I went to different retirement homes and toured them. If we thought that dad might be interested, we made another appointment and took him with us.” Richmond Woods was a great experience, especially for the family. “The people were all caring and committed to making dad’s life better” recalls Gordon.
Bill, though, was dissatisfied. It “didn’t seem to fit his idea of what retirement living should be." He once again moved back into his own apartment. "It seems now that he was ‘practising,” in Gordon's words. The family continued to worry about his well-being, of course, and wondered where the journey would take them next. “My brother moved from London to the Gravenhurst area, and I was left to keep an eye on dad.” Gordon was still working at the time and he knew that he couldn’t give his dad the attention he needed.
“Needless to say, as he was living on his own, issues started to arise. I spent many hours in the emergency room at Victoria Hospital. He fell and broke his wrist. He started having digestive problems. He wandered away one day to get a haircut, and two women found him and put him in a cab and sent him home. He was lost for about 9 hours. I was starting to get frustrated. My brother hired a PSW three times a week to come and sit with him, but that wasn’t the solution.”
Gordon Smyth, left, with his dad, Bill, in 2018
This brings us to 2019. “A friend of my wife had a scheduled tour of Oakcrossing with Holly. She was looking for a place for her elderly mom to move to. I asked if I could tag along, just to see what it was like, and Holly was fine with that. Oakcrossing was new at the time, and had some different features than the other retirement homes dad had lived in. It seemed appealing to me.”
At this time, they were still looking ahead. Bill lived contentedly in his London apartment. But for Gordon, “a lot of my time was spent checking on my dad.” When he raised the issue with family, the fatigue of the process came out.
“I e-mailed my siblings and suggested we move dad into Oakcrossing. I got little support.” His siblings wanted to know why they should move dad again. Why would they want to pay for a retirement home when his dad seemed to be never satisfied. They went back and forth for weeks and months. Gordon was geographically closer to his dad, though, and saw the direness of the need for a change. “My siblings had no idea what was happening, except for what I told them. They weren’t aware of the daily issues. They were all hours away.” It seemed that dad was happy on his own, as he could do whatever he wanted. However, Gordon was trying to live his own life, while working through daily concerns about his dad’s safety.
Finally, when construction at Oakcrossing was completed, he got some siblings together and they took a new look at Oakcrossing, including a tour with their father. “He thought Oakcrossing was great,” says Gordon, “and the others saw that it was the best for dad, for them and for me.”
Once again, Bill moved into a retirement home. Gordon’s insistence paid off this time, though. Bill liked Oakcrossing, where he’s “surrounded by his peers. They can share stories, play cards, and just sit with others.” This time, the change seems to have taken. This is seen in things that are typical of the move into a retirement home, “He’s eating better and more frequently, and I rarely need to take him to the doctor.”
At Oakcrossing, Bill’s happiness translated into his being well-liked by fellow community members. Art Thompson confides that Bill is popular in the community. “I love how he can crack a joke and he never cracks a smile when he tells it. He has a great sense of humour. Everybody likes Tall Bill, as we call him.”
In the summer of 2019, Bill had another fall, and was moved into the assisted living floor at Oakcrossing. “They give him great care and assistance and respect,” says Gordon, “Through it all, they have a sense of humour. The people that work on the assisted living floor are great. They get him for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They check on him during the day. And he gets his medication.”
The real bottom line for caring families is parent’s happiness. There’s great satisfaction in helping aging parents achieve contentment again. In 2019, Gordon said, “My own life is exponentially better. I visit him 4 or 5 times a week. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for only 10 minutes, but they are stress free visits. My siblings are happy, too.
“When I look back over the last 10 years," he told us then, "through the turmoil of all the moves, and all the discussions, there is a result that everyone is looking for. I think some people find it easily, and others, such as my family, have to take a longer road.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone hard, no group more so than seniors, of course. In August 2020, Bill suffered an infection and went into University Hospital in London. He was hospitalized for seven months between August 2020 and May 2021, spending 14 weeks in quarantine—following health protocols—as he was moved around. On top of everything else that was happening, this made things more stressful for Gordon and his family.
During those weeks of quarantine Bill could see no one but doctors, nurses and PSWs. In March of 2021, he moved into a long term care facility in London. “This will be his last move,” Gordon acknowledges. “His time is winding down.”
Which, inevitably it does. Hope, though, still lives. “Hopefully, however long he has will include some joy,” Gordon says now (June). He’s looking forward to introducing Bill to a great-grandson he hasn’t met yet. Life goes on, bittersweet to the end, as does the Smyths' journey. “I just hold onto the good moments,” says Gordon. Caring for his father, he’s helped create some of those good moments: Bill sharing jokes with friends at Oakcrossing, the satisfaction he and siblings found in decisions they made, and Bill’s simply feeling better for long periods of time. And for any caregiver, isn’t that the best that you can do?
~ Jim Huinink (with gratitude to Gordon and his family)
Closing note: Bill Smyth passed away on July 7, 2021. Gordon says, "he is with my mom now, in a better place." We wish peace to Gordon and his family and to all of Bill's friends.