Loving a father living with Alzheimer’s

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Like a robin returning after winter, I am set to begin another trip ‘home’ to see my dad. He lived at home for a few years following the death of my mother in 2003, but due to neighborly concerns for him, my sister and I found an assisted living situation for him almost next door to her home. He has been there ever since.

The usual 14-hour drive has seemed to lengthen over the years as my aging body groans more often and the stops I am forced to give it have become more frequent driving that long stretch of interstate between Iowa and Kentucky back again. 

It wasn’t long after my dad arrived in assisted living that his escaping began, once right in front of my eyes. I thought he had gone over to the refrigerator to get himself a drink but my ears suddenly heard the door click and out into the hallway he shot like a harpoon. Scampering down the hall as fast as he could, I caught him just before he could set off the door buzzer and make his way out into the open grassy field behind the place.

It wasn't so easy to get him back inside since he is twice my size, but when the administrator asked me if I would care to admit him to the Alzheimer unit, my heart shattered.

My dad, as they say, had gone around the bend.

He had opened the door of Alzheimer’s despite every attempt to hold onto him—to keep him on this side of healthy. He had snuck out the glass door of sanity where now he would wander alone onto the graying, fading landscape of dementia from where there was no return.

I knew what it meant better than most. As a nurse myself, I knew it signaled the opening of a new door—one where a buzzer always blared and nurse aides would run to try and lead my dad gently back into the unit using every technique they could: coaxing, seducing, lying, anything in order to avoid an angry confrontation or a fight. At six feet, 240 pounds, my dad didn’t know his strength. He could easily hurt me or someone else, at least, until the brain deteriorates to a point where those things no longer happen and the patient becomes a shell for us to bathe, feed, and change diapers until the end of its activity.

“I wouldn’t want to live like that,” was all I heard from family and friends who for some reason felt that I had control over this.

“It’s all in God’s hands,” I would say, hoping they would receive some measure of comfort from such trite words, but in my heart I began praying that God would take my dad in his sleep. I didn’t want him to live like that either.

That was over a decade ago and I am waiting for the weather to even out so I can make yet another trip to see my dad. And as silly as it may seem to some, I am eager and happy to see him each and every time I do. I still pray for God to take him in his sleep, but now my prayers are far more selfish. “Not until after Kentucky basketball season, God. He still enjoys that. I know he does.” Or, “Not until I see him this time, God. He knows me when I come even if he blends me with my sister.”

My dad has the Alzheimer’s of 50 First Dates. He smiles when I am there and forgets that I have gone or even have come. It has been the single greatest blessing of my dad’s illness to me and has enabled me to live my life with only fleeting moments of grief at not being with him.

When I am with him, I stare at a face of absolute peace and tranquility similar only to one other human being I have seen—the Dalai Lama’s. It is a face that grace flows from, a smile of warm acceptance and welcome, to whoever may come into the room to see him be they visitor or nursing home staff.

And they love him, bring their children to see him, and at one point, a nurse felt he wasn’t getting enough to eat so they increased his portion size! I had to be the bad guy asking them to please cut back on their generosity to my father.

After so many years, my dad has now become unable to speak and if he does, it’s only in short bursts of phrases such as, “Where’s Mom?” or “My baby.”

As great a gift as two small words can be to a daughter, it is an even greater gift and joy to be able to sit beside the altar of my father. It is my father, whose lines and age spots I will inherit, whose brain and body are blessed and broken open, who still teaches lessons of how to live on the other side of that glass door. I know he is not alone in there because I am not alone out here and as we gaze at each other he is showing not telling me how to embrace my aging and mortality.

Now when people say to me, “I wouldn’t want to live like that,” I say my dad is just like Jesus. He is teaching every day, in every way, until the end.

Image: Flickr photo cc by Joe Benjamin