I felt guilty putting my dad in a nursing home but it brought us closer together

I was 21 years old when my mother died in 2011. While this was sad, what was even more shattering was how my 75-year-old father aged overnight. Being alone made him fall into a deep depression. He needed to be around people constantly, loneliness was his nemesis, and there was no easy antidote. On his own, he would not always eat enough, or drink enough, and he was at risk of falling over.

On the verge of adulthood, I had no idea what to do regarding my father’s care. I had gone from studying Noam Chomsky at university to studying care facilities. At first, we tried an assisted living facility, which offered round-the-clock care while retaining a degree of independence. However, the loneliness was all too consuming. He neglected himself, and it soon became apparent that this was not the right place for him.

I eventually decided that a nursing home was the safest place for my father. I struggled with feelings of shame and inadequacy. My greatest fear was that it would take away my father’s dignity and autonomy, and that he would become institutionalised. I feared he would lose his joie de vivre and become a zombie, utterly dependent on the nursing home.

Luckily, and to my surprise, the nursing home was better than I could have imagined. It gave him company, warmth and copious amounts of tea. He needed this caring environment like a child needs their parents. It was no substitute for his wife’s love and care, but it was like a safety blanket. He had worked so hard his entire life; this was his time to be looked after properly. 

In the nursing home, my father came alive again and went back to his jovial, intellectually curious self. Every time I visited him, he walked around with his walking stick or frame, in high spirits.

My father could entertain his greatest love, reading, at the nursing home. I would buy him books on history, politics and his beloved Scotland. He read voraciously, sometimes a book a day. While his body grew less and less mobile, his mind stayed sharp. We would talk for hours about his childhood in wartime Glasgow. His mind was taking him back to the beginning of his life, his body towards the end.

But five years into his stay, in 2016, we made a catastrophic mistake. I was suffering from a mental illness – later diagnosed as bipolar disorder – and my father thought it would be a good idea for us to live together once again. He wanted to take care of me.

Suddenly going from a catatonic state to caring for my elderly father, who had significant health needs, was disastrous for us both. We moved into a small house together. My father suddenly had to fend for himself again, having been stable in a nursing home. I dragged myself out of bed so I could clean the house and cook for him, but secretly I was barely surviving the depths of depression. I developed psychosis and ended up in hospital.

My father had to go back into a nursing home. And yet, thanks to that, our quality time returned. I would take him out for lunch every week or we would go for afternoon tea. He said he enjoyed his time in the nursing home, and that he felt safe and looked after there.

The deterioration of an elderly person’s physical or mental health can feel so cruel and is often heartbreaking for their family. Yet in his last eight years, my father’s ageing was graceful. His mind remained sharp until the end, and we deepened our relationship during this final chapter of his life.

There is still a stigma around nursing homes, particularly in my mother’s Japanese culture, where it is anathema, and you are expected to live with your elders at home until they die. For example, my Japanese grandmother lived with her son, my uncle, until her death. It was never an option to place her in a nursing home, although eventually she did enter a hospice. It is common in Japan for several generations to live under one roof.

Elderly people are sacred in Japanese society; respecting your elders is embedded in Japanese DNA. I deeply felt these societal and cultural pressures to resist the nursing home for my father at all costs. I still feel guilty in some ways that he spent his final years there. But in the end, there was no other choice.

Nursing homes might have a bad reputation for neglect and abuse, but I saw only the good. The tireless work of the staff and their endless supplies of empathy and care gave my father a new lease of life, one where he was safe and thriving rather than alone and neglected. For someone with complex health needs and a lack of a support system like my father, it was the perfect place to spend his remaining years. It provided respite to both of us, so we could enjoy life again.