Making the most difficult life decisions
John Venator’s 18 years as president and CEO of the The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), an industry trade group in Oak Terrace, Illinois, demanded a heavy international travel schedule. Venator kept in touch with his parents in Rochelle, Illinois, 86 miles away from Oak Terrace, mostly by phone calls and occasional visits. But just one year before his own retirement, Venator detected some changes in his parents’ capabilities that he felt required a bigger presence in their lives. So he asked the Board of Directors for a different position, one overseeing the organization’s charitable education foundation, which would require less of his time and travel. In exchange, he agreed to extend his contract for an additional year.
Parentgiving spoke to Venator about his very public announcement regarding his caregiving responsibilities and how he’s seeking to better balance his life.
Parentgiving: What drove you to make this decision?
Venator: I came to realize that I needed and wanted to do something to assist my parents, because they’ve done so much for me over the years. I’m not doing it begrudgingly, I’m doing it willingly.
Parentgiving: What kind of reaction have you heard from the business community?
Venator: People have been very supportive. One of our board members shared with me what was going on with his mother. At our conference, this precipitated more people to share their situations with me. I find more and more people are talking about their parents and grandparents.
Parentgiving: What is your parents’ situation?
Venator: My dad is 94 and my mom is 91. Together, we’ve chosen to keep them in their own home. Fortunately they live in a small town, and we have built a support network around them. We have two ladies who come in each morning and help and do a reality check – how are things, how do they feel, did they have a good night. Neither has formal training, but both are very caring people who want my parents to be well looked after. We are about to place an advertisement in the local community weekly newspaper to find one or two additional women to provide assistance to them on the weekends and to serve as backup if one of the two existing women cannot come on a specific day.
Mom needs a little more physical care, with help dressing and assistance in the bathroom. My father still drives and he likes to cook breakfast. A handyman fixes things. They participate in a lot of elder activities at the senior center and country club.
Both have mobility issues and need canes (we call them “walking sticks”) to maintain their balance. They also use a walker with wheels in the house. Each of them has high blood pressure and cholesterol challenges as well as "aches and pains" for which they take medications. The pills are put in a special container for each of them by day of the week each week to make sure they are taking all of their pills in a timely manner. Both of them see a local internist and cardiologist and another internist in Chicago. My mother is now also being treated by a physician-prescribed chiropractor to relieve pain.
Parentgiving: How is your role in their lives changing?
Venator: I’m hoping to be there one to two days a week, one day to have an early supper, and on Saturday so we can do errands together. With this job, most of my travel will be domestic, so if I had to I could get there from anywhere by the next morning. If I had to stay a few days I could work remotely with a computer and a phone.
One thing is, I’m now assisting my father with bill paying. Older people can be victimized. People send them things that look like invoices and they pay them.
When bills come, my father puts them in a designated box. I come up and we sit down with them and discuss what we think he should do. It’s important to maintain his dignity – we decide jointly.
Possibly the most important thing I’ll do is simply make myself available to spend quality time with them, talking with them, asking questions, listening to what they have to say. Also I’ll be getting them out of the house, taking them to dinner or lunch or on short errands as well as calling regularly when I cannot come to their home.
Parentgiving: Do you use a case manager to help?
Venator: No. My parents live in a small town, with only 8,600 people. There is no caregiver agency to my knowledge, nor to the knowledge of their local doctors.
Parentgiving: What documents do you have in place to help them as their needs evolve?
Venator: I have medical and legal power of attorney, but I’ve told people I will not exercise it unless it’s needed – I would consult with the other parent. They’ve chosen to have living wills. A hometown attorney did the financial paperwork, and we’ve made sure the bank president has copies, as well as the hospital and the paramedics. Even though I’m their son, because of the privacy laws now, they wouldn’t be able to share any information. Now they can tell me everything.
Parentgiving: What is your plan should their health situation change?
Venator: We will then be forced to consider some sort of assisted living facility, although my mother is very against any such move. She has said we should shoot her first rather than move her from their home. So you can see why I am trying to honor their wishes.
Parentgiving: How have your parents responded to your decision?
Venator: I discussed this with friends, and I’m purposely not positioning it as I need to get more involved in their help. My father would say "We don’t want you to do that." I said I was transitioning to a new role and not traveling as much, so I would get to spend more time with them. I’ve found it’s a dignity issue. If they start to feel bad about themselves, they lose dignity and their health deteriorates faster. It’s all about their ability to function without assistance where they can.
Parentgiving: You’re fortunate to have this opportunity.
Venator: I know a lot of people have jobs where, if they took this to their bosses they would say, "Sorry, travel is part of the job." I’m pleased that I can do this, and I know it’s the right thing to do.