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What I Really Know About Tough Choices: My Father's Last Wishes

Afflicted with Alzheimer’s, my father designated me—his daughter, a registered nurse and his health care agent—to carry out his advance directives. As his disease progressed, I always consulted my brothers and mom before finalizing any decisions. I also often included two of his sisters in the choices. One part of his directive gave me pause. “I specifically do not want any of the following as life prolonging procedures,” it read. A list of treatments followed. I was uncertain about when to implement the last one on the list—antibiotics.

Many infections came and went as we watched him go from successful businessman to a physical shell that could no longer recognize us, speak, walk or move. One day, Mom told me that she knew he was really gone. “He has always puckered when I have kissed him,” she said. “Now he doesn’t pucker anymore.”

That gave me the signal. I guess I had been unconsciously waiting for it. I decided that with the next infection, there would be no antibiotics. I discussed this with his physician, and she noted that she would honor that choice.

When the infections came, we called in hospice. Mom was weak and did not have the stamina to sit with him around the clock to guarantee she would be there at the end. But when hospice gave me a report late on a Friday, I suggested she go over the next morning. She went and began singing to him. I got the call about five hours later. Mom was singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” to him when he passed. He was 91 years old.

The end of my father’s life gave me an endearing memory. While the minister consoled me, he pointed out that Dad trusted me to carry out his own tough choice.

The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online.  Ellen Swanson is a reader from Edina, Minn.

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