How I became a helicopter daughter

HOUSTON • During the past year, my 88-year-old father finished reading two books, Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See and The Train To Crystal City, written by our friend Jan Jarboe Russell. As far as I could tell, he thoroughly enjoyed them.

Over the same period, I bought my father about 50 other books, almost all tailored to his lifelong interests, which include politics and history (with special emphasis on the Holocaust). As dad also loves mysteries, I ordered new releases by Jo Nesbo and Daniel Silva.

I also bought dog books. My father is incomprehensibly devoted to his ungrateful corgi, so I experimented with the poet Mary Oliver's Dog Songs, as well as dog humour, like Awkward Family Pet Photos. Because dad can still identify every make and model of cars, I tried car books, too. Who knew there were so many books about the Packard, my father's family car when he was growing up in Baltimore?

I don't know why but, of countless volumes, only those first two stuck with him. That is a mystery of the short-term memory loss my dad suffers from as he closes in on his ninth decade. Another mystery is why I persist in buying him books at a rate comparable with Imelda Marcos' shoe habit.

That's not all I do. Since dad took up residence in our living room two years ago, I have hired and managed his 24-hour cast of caregivers, and investigated and purchased two wheelchairs (one is foldable) and three walkers. Having more or less replicated the medical team he had back in San Antonio, I keep a calendar of his doctors' appointments on my Apple iPhone. I'm also on first-name terms with the pharmacists at my neighbourhood Walmart and Target.

Thanks to me, dad's diet - formerly carbs and red wine - now adheres more closely to the dictates of the Agriculture Department's food pyramid. For the first time in years, he is wearing his hearing aids (a new set). I even saw his corgi through a dental procedure that cost as much as a Tiffany engagement ring.

All things considered, dad is doing pretty well. As his primary caregiver, I'd say this experience has been gratifying overall - but also strangely familiar. I did a lot of the same sort of things 20 years ago, when my son, Sam, was little.

Back then, my supposedly free time was spent "helping" Sam build a covered wagon train from toilet paper rolls or film a video about the Battle of New Orleans. I ate lunch with him at school most Fridays, after reading to his class ("Charlotte's Web" killed). I went on field trips. I once sourced for a dozen live mice to be used in the fifth-grade Halloween carnival haunted house. I hosted birthday parties, complete with Power Rangers and mad scientists, and had fights with my husband over his lack of participation in Sam's Cub Scout troop.

In other words, I was a helicopter mum. I wasn't a certifiable one, but there were moments. Like the time I was really mad about the "B" Sam got for an essay I'd worked really hard on.

And now, after a four-year hiatus, during which my college graduate son and my widowed father managed fine without me, I've morphed into a helicopter daughter.

It's worrisome how easily I fell back into the role. Maybe, as one friend suggested, I didn't have enough time in between to forget how to hover. But anyone who has done both can't help but note the similarities: the constant anxiety combined with overtaxed patience, for instance, or the dubiously rewarding shopping opportunities.

It's also hard to overlook that the people doing the heavy lifting in both cases tend to be women. One much-trumpeted study showed that elderly fathers with grown daughters live longer than fathers who have only sons (The same did not hold for elderly mothers and their daughters - no surprise to anyone who has been a teenage girl or the mother of one).

The way I ended up back in the "overcare" business was that my father fell while he was at our house, and needed surgery for a broken hip. It became clear during his recovery that he couldn't live on his own anymore.

"Let's bring your father to our house to live and not to die," said my husband, who, like me, found the visits to a so-called rehabilitation unit for the elderly unendurable. There were cultural issues, too: Though never practising Jews, we are cultural Jews, so family came first. And there's my father's personality. He never complains, likes to flirt and has a killer smile. I've watched him work his magic on nurses, waitresses and saleswomen. They all give me advice on how to care for him even better.

Which brings me to the last factor: me, your typical high-achieving female, raised to always do my best. I'd hoped that by late middle age, this tendency would have abated - and it had, a little. But just as it was crucial to be a Good Mum, now my father's frailty has brought back the caring compulsion with a vengeance. There is one important difference, though, between being a helicopter mum and a helicopter daughter: Overcaring for a child is bad for the child, but overcaring for an elderly parent is not bad for the parent. Being overly vigilant may not extend a parent's life, but it can improve it.

"You've turned your home into an assisted living centre," a friend remarked, and she was right. The delusion that I can restore my father to perfect health is a persistent one.

I never intended any of this; one thing just led to another. Most people I know in similar situations have tucked their parents into long-term care facilities, and plainly think I'm a lunatic for not doing so.

Some days, I do, too. I would love to have a few lazy afternoons back, killing time with my husband and our own bad dogs.

But then, each morning, I come downstairs and there is my father, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper. "Hello, Min!" he says, using the nickname he gave me decades ago. He's still so very glad to see me. And I, him.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'How I became a helicopter daughter'. Print Edition | Subscribe