Dear Carolyn: My father just came for a brief visit, and I dreaded every moment of it. For the past 30 years, I have lived in a large metropolitan area about five hours from where I grew up and where my father still lives. We speak weekly and see each other once or twice a year.
Carolyn Hax: Father’s visits leave son feeling frazzled
When he visits, he stays with my wife and me, and he is constantly antsy — “What are we doing now?” “See you tomorrow at 6 a.m.,” etc. And his stream-of-consciousness questioning just drives me up a wall — ”Remember when you were 6?” “Do you still play the piano?” “What should we do now?” It’s 6:02 a.m. at this point.
Anyway, every visit just leaves me frazzled, and it is getting worse. I wish I could just enjoy our time together (he is in his 80s). Any advice?
Son: I’m sure he wishes he could enjoy it, too.
If he’s not like this outside the visits, then the visits are the problem. (I’m earning the big bucks today.) And the problem seems to be that he’s anxious — about you, or the large metropolitan area, or the 10-hour “brief” round-trip, or any combination of the above plus being 80-something, or just being 80-something and out of his comfy place. When age takes even a fraction of a second off our reaction times, that can be anxiety-inducing, especially in unfamiliar places. I’m generalizing, of course, and any given person’s experience will vary, and your dad may gamely travel into his second century. But being mindful of what you and he are asking of him couldn’t hurt.
That’s true of the idea of anxiety to begin with, in fact: It’s just a layman’s guess but without much risk if I’m wrong. The remedy is just good hosting practice anyway: Commit to putting your dad more at ease.
That may mean traveling to him exclusively from now on. Certainly ask if these trips are becoming too much.
If he still wants to travel, then look for ways to make your home more comfortable for him. Solicit his feedback. Check everything yourself, too, before his next visit. Sleep in the guest bed, use the towels. Inspect the bathroom you ask him to use. Notice how well the blinds work, use the reading lamp, charge your phone. Hear ambient sounds as if your ears haven’t had decades to adjust.
Do this for him even if he’s receptive to a conversation about how you can make these visits better for him. He may be relieved at the chance to say what would help. (So many people, family included, think they’re doing their hosts a favor by responding to that question with “Everything’s great!” when it’s not, so set your hopes accordingly.)
You can also absorb tension from the atmosphere by anticipating him as-is. He will get up at the buttcrack of dawn. He will ask you a million questions. He will topic-hop. It can be a bane, a quirk, a hoot. Up to you.
So you, wanting a happier visit, will prepare for his arrival. You will set out: a photo album to go through together, a jigsaw puzzle to work on together, a tablet loaded with family videos to watch together, a bunch of ingredients for a breakfast you cook together, an itinerary for the day, a see where I’m going with this?
If he is occupied, and you are prepared, then you both may chill a degree. Or two. But even if you don’t, think how welcome your dad will feel.