MY FATHER STRUGGLED with memory issues for quite some time — oh, it’s just normal aging process, everyone would say. He’d misplace keys, important papers, gardening tools, etc on his five-acre patch of heaven on earth … I’m sure my mom started keeping a closer eye on him, but never let on that his forgetfulness was getting worse. Still insisting it was “normal”, we could only wonder since we lived so far from each other. Finances got a little strange — then unmanageable … Dad wasn’t able to juggle all the different financial things on his plate and they eventually lost their beautiful built-from-the-ground-up home to the bank. Finally, they moved up north to be closer to me — I was so grateful … and relieved to have them close by. It wasn’t long before both my husband and I realised there was a serious problem and started suggesting doctors to evaluate his declining memory. It took a lot of arm twisting, as Mom still didn’t want to believe that her still physically-strong husband could possibly become mentally weak.
Finally, the diagnosis my husband and I knew was coming was pronounced. Though still in the early stages, it was definitely Alzheimer’s Disease.
Alzheimer’s is an insidious disease, striking twice. First, bit by bit, taking recent memories away, then memories of adulthood, of childhood … until it has taken every precious memory. Forgetting friends, family, close loved ones. Forgetting how to brush teeth, to use the toilet, to shower. The basics we all take for granted. Gone. Then it strikes a second time, finally taking the shell-of-a-person once known — permanently, in death.
After my dad was diagnosed, we introduced my parents to the local branch of the Alzheimer’s Association and signed my parents up for the support group — an awesome tool for caregivers. Then, we schemed amongst ourselves how to convince my dad into accepting a “babysitter” so my mom — the primary caregiver — could get some respite from the energy- sucking 24/7 care.
It was difficult. We thought about many things, amongst them, a gardener, but my dad wouldn’t stand for that. His green thumb precluded any assistance there. None of the ideas panned out. So, I helped out, taking dad on drives and walks in the surrounding country side. He loved it … and my mom got the break she needed. Plus, I began a long journey of getting re-acquainted — acquainted with another side of my daddy … a side I really never got to know that well whilst growing up since he spent so much time traveling on business … or on camping trips bonding with my brothers.
My parents made it very clear that they wanted to remain in their home “until the end” and we agreed to work with their wishes by finding a “housekeeper” (alternate caregiver) to help Mom around the house, when dad began to decline. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that my mom was hiding something from us. Things were getting worse and he started to wander a little bit. Not far thankfully, but it did concern us. It was then we registered him with the county, in case he wandered off and couldn’t find his way home. This was long before the Silver Alert system was in place.
Soon, they needed to move from their protected cul de sac rental due to the owner selling the property, so we started searching for something in a relatively small, protected community. We found a cute little trailer park not far from me — I could be there in five minutes if need be. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Something else my mom kept from the entire family — though we should have seen the signs — was her failing health. Apparently, she quietly suffered a series of mini strokes and told no one. Looking back, I kick myself … all the signs were all there screaming at us to see. To do something. Slurred speech, forgetfulness, lack of strength (grip) …
We received a call from the park’s manager — both had been taken to the emergency room. My mom had collapsed and my dad was completely distraught. Mom was cleaning up the floor where a new dishwasher would reside when a massive stroke struck. She never regained consciousness, and lingered for five days before succumbing to her injuries.
Dad kept asking where she was … and not realising — or thinking — how it would effect him, I told him she’d passed away from her stroke. The love of his life (over fifty years) was gone. He crumbled in tears. I allowed him to grieve, staying close, just in case. Later, he asked again where she was and, without thinking, I told him again. Immediately, I knew I made a mistake. The anguish cut deep, like the fresh wound that it was. For him, it was the first time he was hearing it — again. This went on for days … with me trying to figure out how I could lessen the pain with the telling, trying different tactics with the same anguishing results. Finally, I simply fabricated a story that seemed to satisfy him till his next inquiry.
There are many stories I could tell about his decline, but I’d rather focus on his strengths. In all the time I spent with him in those last few years, I was amazed. His love for life, his patience, sense of humour and the twinkle in his eyes … his devotion to God … even in his “broken” state, what I saw in him was a wonderful living example of the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control … I never saw him as that person with Alzheimer’s. What did I see? Something beautiful. Watching him, interacting with him … always made me think, that’s what I want to be when I grow up. My brothers distanced themselves from him because they didn’t want to lose the memories of who he’d been to them when he was “whole”. When they did visit, he didn’t know them … they were complete strangers. I felt sorry that they were not able to stay connected. But I had the advantage of being able to see him daily. It made a difference. Definitely.
Yes, he had self-control issues (that is part of the menace called Alzheimers), but it usually was because his fierce protection skills came into play a few times when he saw injustices happening around him. Or when his caregivers at the nursing home became impatient and tried rushing him or using the wrong words (we did switch facilities after than and his anger disappeared). Yes, he forgot my name … and even what my relationship was to him, but not down deep — he told me once that he knew there was some sort of important connection. He just didn’t know what it was. That I was special to him for some reason. It made my heart burst with love. He was a blessing to me in those last years. And it was a blessing that Alzheimer’s did not get to take him all the way down the path to death. His heart gave out whilst he was still able to communicate with people. He died peacefully in his sleep.
What I haven’t mentioned is, after my mom died, in addition to taking on my dad’s day-to-day care, I became more involved with the Alzheimer’s Association’s annual Walk to End Alzheimers to raise awareness of the disease and to help raise funds for research to find a cure. I walked in the events, both in Salinas and Monterey every year — still try to do both, but my schedule sometimes gets in the way. I’ve walked as an individual and in a group as the captain, but I’ve tried to walk every year, without fail … and financial support both chapters.
I’m walking again this year — but only at the Aptos location. For my dad. And for everyone out there struggling with or helping someone with this crippling, devastating disease. I’d like to ask you to help, either by joining me in the walk or by donating to the Alzheimer’s Association. Help finance the cure. Spread awareness of the disease to others. If you are local and want to join in, I will only be walking in the Aptos Walk to End Alzheimers event this year. I will support both Monterey and Santa Cruz chapters. I’m a team captain for Monterey County Walkers … for both the Monterey and Santa Cruz walks, so if you want to walk with me, click on the Aptos link — please! Later today, I will be setting up the page for the Monterey walk for those that wish to donate directly to that one — or want to walk as a group (without me, unfortunately). Here’s the hyperlink for the Monterey group on this page — thanks for checking back!
Have a beautiful weekend, folks!