Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: My father turns 90 in a few months. Over the last 10 years, he has refused to attend any weddings, graduations, or other celebrations. He does go to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter - although he seems to have lost the filter between his brain and his mouth and frequently says upsetting things to family members. For example, my niece was going through chemotherapy and was wearing a scarf, and my father mocked her bare head. When we reminded him that she had cancer, he lashed out that he couldn't be expected to remember everything. He never apologized.
I make an effort to see the good in my father, and I know aging isn't easy for anybody. But younger relatives have no patience for him, and every time I suggest a party for him, it goes over like a lead balloon. I understand he is difficult and prone to outbursts, but the man is 90, and I still think he deserves our respect. Where do I go from here?
Answer: Please consider going to a broader definition of respect than the one you're using now. Your dad avoids big gatherings. Except the familiar ones, apparently - and it makes sense, since even people at peak health can be daunted by them.
There are beautiful ways you can honor your dad that don't involve a big party. Have everyone film themselves wishing him a happy birthday, for example, and compile these messages into a video using a format he knows, like a DVD. He can play it whenever he's feeling down. A book of still photos would work, too. Present it at a gathering of manageable size.
You've got a great message - now just keep going, and think of a way he'd be most grateful to receive it.
Comment: The problem isn't just that he hasn't gone to anyone else's parties, it's that he has been actively and unapologetically nasty. I wonder how willing the younger folks are to smile and say "happy birthday" on a video.
Reply: Well, it's not either-or, it's both.
And yes, his nastiness is of course a problem, but presumably these younger folks can grasp - or be taught - that age-related cognitive issues are the almost-certain explanation for his difficult temperament. He has lost his filter, not failed ever to have one. It's clear he was humiliated by his failure to grasp or recall what the head scarf was for.
So, if this were my father, I would have no problem saying to my kids that they needed to draw a big sign and hold it up for a camera, because a video compilation of birthday wishes would mean a lot to the man who raised me and whose world has closed in on him lately.
If they scoffed at that, then I'd say it would mean a lot to me, which I certainly hope would be good enough.
The lessons that need to be taught here - about family and aging and the beauty of not bean-counting a relative's worth - are as valuable a purpose as the marking of the birthday itself. Please be flexible enough to find a way to make this birthday work.