One of the surprises of bringing my 86-year-old father to Peru was seeing how much he ultimately thrived on having lots of human contact. To be blunt, his being doted on by sweet-tempered Peruvian women helped transform him from a vain, self-absorbed, prickly old man into a calm person who was actually kind of nice to be around. (Getting him on antidepressants—which I suspect he had needed for years–also helped.) Being part of la comunidad (the Spanish word for “community”) was an integral part of his emotional care.
Never a physically demonstrative person, my father had lived a rather solitary life in the United States. Widowed at age seventy-seven, he lived alone in a four-bedroom house in northern Florida and resisted having me, Jorge and Sam come live with him when we proposed the idea. His interactions with other people were limited to weekly church services, monthly Masonic meetings and brief transactions with grocery clerks, bank tellers, doctors and nurses. This wasn’t really that big a change from the way he had lived when my mom was alive. For decades my mother had been the center of his emotional life; when she died of lung cancer in 2004, he bought a toy poodle and lavished his affections (and Krispy Kreme donuts) on that. He had no close friends to speak of, just people he had known up north long ago and with whom he exchanged annual Christmas cards.
Moving my father to live with us in Peru put us in a different, more humane, paradigm.
In contrast with the United States—which prizes, above all, independence and individualism—Peru is a country of collectivism. Peruvian life in general is focused on being part of a group: groups of friends, groups of classmates, groups of office workers, and, of course, la familia. Solitary people don’t fit in well in Peru, and it was in this context that my father was welcomed to Lima in 2011. The housekeeper and enfermera técnicas (ETs) that I hired had no idea that my father and I had for decades led relatively separate lives in the United States. They presumed that, like most Latin families, we typically ate meals together several times a week, spent much of our free time with one another–that our individual happiness was bound up in caring for one another. When I hired the ETs, they took their cultural presumptions of what la familia is and did their best to see that realized in our home setting, as they would normally do with a client. From the time he set foot in our house on Calle Paula Ugarriza in March 2011, my father never spent another second alone in his life. The home aides fed him, changed him, bathed him, and sat with him during every waking hour and at night as well (they slept on a fold-out bed in his room). As Alzheimer’s peeled away his ability to be self-sufficient, the ETs stepped in to assist him in every daily task. Their cultural bias and professional training made them perfectly suited to do this.
Three months after my father moved to Peru—after he had suffered through delusions, gone on a hunger strike, and climbed out of a deep depression—I came home one afternoon from work to find him watching TV in his room. He and the ET were sitting side by side on the couch, holding hands, looking at a Spanish-language soap opera. He was calm, content, and when the ET noticed that his nose was runny, he let her lean over and wipe it for him.
I felt like we had turned a corner then.