The Long Goodbye - Features - Atlanta Magazine

The Long Goodbye

Augustus Monroe figured he'd drop dead long before he'd need a nursing home. A decade later, his son considers the weighty financial and emotional costs that come with a parent's immortality.

Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

We thought Daddy was going to die in 2001. He was staggering around the house in his underwear, gasping in pain, his eyes hollow, his face slashed from shaving with an old-fashioned safety razor. He was eighty-two years old. We took him to a doctor, who said his spine was deteriorating, gave him pills, and suggested he pray. A few days later, Daddy fell at the mailbox, bounced his head on the pavement, and crawled up the driveway, scraping the skin off his knees before collapsing on the front steps. Mama sat in her recliner in front of the TV, worried and clueless, until a neighbor called an ambulance. The EMTs got Daddy propped up in his recliner. He refused to go with them. When I arrived, Daddy was gulping down whiskey. I called the ambulance back, and they took him to DeKalb Medical. Doctors found prostate cancer and operated. My sister and I cried, sure Daddy was in his last days.

That was eleven years ago. Since then, Daddy’s long goodbye has drained his retirement income and life savings of more than $300,000. Where’s that money gone? Assisted living, mostly. Of course, that amount doesn’t account for his medical bills, most of which have been paid by Medicare and insurance policies that were part of his retirement. Daddy’s income—Social Security, plus monthly checks from two pensions—pays for the facility where he lives, his taxes, his life insurance policy premiums, and such incidentals as a visiting podiatrist to clip his nails.

And he has been kicked out of two hospices for not dying.

Daddy is ninety-three now and wears a diaper, is spoon-fed, and urinates through a catheter, drifting in and out of deep sleep in which he gasps for air and appears to be dead. Trisha, my sister, texted a picture of him in October to one of her daughters, who texted back: “Happy Halloween!” When he wakes up, his caregivers dress him and plop him in a wheelchair. He rolls around like a child until it’s time to eat again.

I cannot imagine that this once-dignified Southern gentleman, who clawed his way out of the grit of a Depression-era tobacco farm in North Carolina and bought a snazzy double-breasted suit with one of his first paychecks, would be anything but humiliated by what is happening to him now—if he had all his faculties. Yet as one of his nurses told me, “Your father has no interest in dying.” It is not heroic measures keeping him alive; he just keeps ticking. He takes only two medicines: an antibiotic for a urinary tract infection and OxyContin for the pain in his spine.

At sixty-four, I am at the leading edge of baby boomers who have ringside seats to the slow-motion demise of the Greatest Generation, watching our parents pass away slowly and stubbornly, dying piece by piece over a decade or more, often unwilling or unable to share their feelings. Most of us, such as my sister and I, head into the turmoil of caring for an aging Immortal utterly unprepared.

Daddy used to laugh at Trisha and me whenever we suggested discussing assisted living and long-term care insurance with him. He insisted—with the unshakable confidence of a career civil engineer—that he didn’t need to make such plans, that he would simply drop dead one day and that would be the end of it. He refused to discuss it further.

It didn’t work out according to that plan, and there was no other plan.

>> EXTRA ESSAY: Read Monroe's 2002 piece on putting his parents in assisted living

Augustus Currie Monroe was the hardest-working person I’ve ever seen. When he graduated from the University of Florida in 1942, he got a job at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A big reason? The guaranteed pension. He never trusted the stock market, with the crash from what he called the “Hoover days” always fresh in his mind. He ended up earning two pensions—one for his career as a civilian engineer and one from a second career as deputy director of DeKalb County’s water and sewer department.

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  1. Molly posted on 01/06/2012 07:33 PM
    Thank you, Doug Monroe, and Atlanta Magazine, for sharing this account. For those of us who've been there, it's comforting to hear someone give voice to a cry for loved ones who suffered. For those who haven't had to deal with such a crisis yet, it gives us an honest perspective on what to expect, and maybe even some insight into how we might make this process of caring for each other through life and death a little more humane.
  2. Gentle Reader posted on 01/07/2012 09:37 PM
    An all too familiar story. The date in the first line appears to be a typo, as 2011 was not 11 years ago.
    1. Jackson Reeves posted on 01/07/2012 09:57 PM
      @Gentle Reader Thanks for alerting us to that error, Gentle Reader! It must have occurred when we uploaded the story on our site as the date is correctly listed in the print magazine (the error probably happened as a result of formatting issues that can arise when copying from design files to content management systems). Gladly, we've just fixed it, but we apologize for any confusion it may have caused. Thanks again!
  3. Lynne A posted on 01/09/2012 12:14 PM
    Hello Doug,
    This heart-breaking account of such a wonderful man is at once sad, funny and sobering. I am so sorry for your loss. Glad to hear that you are teaching in Brooklyn and enjoying that. Would love to read how you are doing after your father's passing. May God hold you close in your time of loss.
  4. marymk posted on 01/24/2012 08:01 PM
    Thanks for this very timely article, Doug. I have an appointment with hospice this week to discuss Mama's care. She has been in assisted living since 2008 and within the last six months she has declined significantly and is on a myriad of meds to keep her going. Fortunately, she and Daddy prepared themselves financially for long term care (he passed away in 2010 after a brief one month stay in a skilled nursing facility). Mama is ready to go, as she tells me every time I visit and we have prepared ourselves to let her go. How long will it be?....who knows? We'll miss her....the way she was, not the way she is now.
  5. BG posted on 01/25/2012 06:25 PM
    There needs to be a system for outsourcing Immortals to countries where assisted living is cheaper. My grandmother is in assisted living in Bosnia and my mother pays 700 euros per month.
  6. Ross Perloe posted on 01/27/2012 10:49 AM
    Article brings back memories of my father and the great care he and my grandparents recieved by my mother who had first been a visiting nurse during my middle and high school years. Great article that I will refer to often as I'm a long term care insurance specialist that has often dealt with prospects that beleive they can self-insure or the need for care won't happen to them.
  7. Joe Hershing posted on 01/30/2012 01:22 PM
    Part of the problem is taking your Dad to the expensive, high-tech healthcare folks every time he has a "bad spell". It sounds heartless, but if he had a "do not resuscitate" in place, maybe the "bad spell" would be his last. He and you would be released from this horror show. Sort of like the .357 option but you let natural causes pull the trigger.

    If its possible, I hope to go that way. We have to face it, we are all going to die. Let's get as much good as we can out of life, then leave when it becomes "extreme measures" time.
  8. Maia posted on 03/26/2012 05:47 PM
    Great, now I know what lies in store for me now Cameron (UK) has sold the NHS to his lobbyists.
  9. rodene posted on 01/02/2014 05:19 AM
    I was wondering what is really on this picture, good things that it is discuss below the picture. Now I know what is the painting all about. Thanks for sharing.
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  10. Regina posted on 01/31/2014 06:01 AM
    Death is something which all of us are really worried off. If we are born to this world, there comes a day when we have to bid farewell from this world. The article was so heart touching as it reminded me about my grandfather who have passed few months back.
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  11. John Hogg posted on 06/04/2014 01:18 PM
    Doug Monroe is an editorial contributor to Atlanta Magazine and a lecturer in Mass Communication at Georgia College. He also knows how to bring it to life for the reader who knows nothing about 'Southern' as well for the guy who grew up in Dixie and knows it only too well.
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