End of Life Care: When You’re Gay Without Kids, Who Will Take Care of You?

Written by | Columnists and Letters

Wade Rouse

In the course of helping their own parents face the slings and arrows of age, Wade and Gary make alternative plans for their own twilight years.

It is the call no one hopes to receive: late at night, on a weekday, when the world is generally asleep. I could tell immediately by the look on Gary’s face that the news was not good.

My father fell,” Gary said after talking with his mom. “Broke his hand, shattered his forearm. Surgery, rehab…” Gary stopped and started sobbing. “This could be it.”

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Gary’s 84-year-old father had been battling Parkinson’s for years. It had progressed to the point where he was having difficulty walking without assistance.
As I held Gary and told him it would be okay, he whispered, “Liar.” Then he added, “You don’t need to go through this again.”

“For better or worse,” I reminded him.

“It’s been worse for a while,” he said through his tears.

My mother had been diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and died in 2009. My father went into a tailspin as soon as she passed, and his dementia made the next six years a rollercoaster ride. He died in 2015. Gary had been by my side every step of the way. Between maintaining their care and my career, we were exhausted and had prayed for a break when it came to worrying about Gary’s parents.

As we rushed to see his father, Gary looked at me while driving and asked, “Who’s going to care for us?”

It’s a question that we — and many of our gay friends — had posed for years, even more so in recent days as our parents became increasingly infirm and we aged. I jokingly called my aging LGBTQ posse “The Golden Gays,” and several of us had sat down to figure out exactly how we were going to handle our later years with a maximum of grace and without the help of any children of our own.

I certainly was of the mindset of Gary’s parents and my own father: I wanted to die in my own home. I was not only worried about the type of care I would receive – even in the nicest of retirement facilities – but of the type of care Gary and I would receive as gay spouses.

Gary felt he would do just fine in a cushy retirement village — whether it was gay or straight — playing bingo and organizing dances until his time came. But I, like my father, didn’t play so well with others, and so signing up to spend unknown time adapting to their wants and needs and general way of life was an idea to which I was firmly opposed.

A dear friend had broached the idea of buying a swath of land somewhere in a temperate climate and building a commune of cottages. Some of them would be specially equipped for wheelchairs and other accessories necessary for our final years. It would also be dotted with clubhouses for parties. We would all merge funds to hire caregivers and doctors, perhaps even offering them a salary and living quarters on our land.

It was a grand idea, and one that appealed to me, but how would we all agree on the same location? And could we all play (and continue to age) well together in such close proximity? “Don’t go into business with a friend,” my father had always warned, and this seemed like pretty serious business.

Many of our friends’ and relatives’ children had also provided assurances that they would be there for us, but they were young, some of them just starting out. Life, as we all know, takes many unexpected turns. And I knew many peers whose children, either emotionally or financially, would not be in the position to care for them in their own later years.

Thus, this question of care had haunted Gary for years, largely because he (half-heartedly) joked that I would be the first to die, and he would be left alone. So I had (half-heartedly) joked to Gary that I already had my exit strategy all planned: When it was time, Gary would wheel me outside of our home in Palm Springs — which sat at the top of a mountain — and simply let go as I chugged a bottle of rosé.

I mentioned this to Gary’s father when we visited. We were sitting alone in his room after he’d finished his physical therapy. He was exhausted. His head rolled when he was tired, and his words came out soft and slurred. Still, he laughed and nodded.

“That’s all we want,” he whispered. (I had to lean close to hear him. )“To be in control of our destiny.” He stopped. “With dignity.”

Gary’s father has now made it home — for how long, we do not know. But it is good to know that he is there with his wife, and when I think about him sitting in his favorite chair, watching baseball in the home he loves, I can’t help but imagine myself in a similar position. Sometimes it makes me weep with happiness and sometimes, with fear.

Wade’s latest novel as Viola Shipman is The Recipe Box. To learn about both his novels and memoirs, visit waderouse.com.

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Last modified: July 8, 2019