Tomorrow would have been my dad’s 94th birthday. He was a special man, kind and strong the product of a hard yet loved filled life. He started life as the second child of four in a farming family in Port Washington, Wisconsin. He knew even … Continue reading Thoughts on My Father
My father was a storyteller. His head held memories of a lifetime. So much joy and some sorrow too, it seemed he never forgot anything. He loved to laugh and share the tales of his mischievous youth and didn’t mind sometimes letting out some of the deeper stories too, those painful memories that made him.
I used to love hearing how he and some of the other boys rigged up the firecrackers in Uncle Jake’s old farm truck, thinking that their cousin was going to be the one using the truck that day. His eyes would just sparkle as he laughed talking about how fast they ran and hid when Uncle Jake jumped out of that truck swearing mad and ready to get whoever had played that trick.
Sometimes there were other stories too. I remember once Dad told me about working on the neighbor’s farm as a young man. He’d skipped one day. I don’t remember why, if he was sick or just in a teenage moment of not wanting to work, but he skipped that day and it changed his world. His co-worker was driving the farm truck. If Dad had been there he would have been in the truck too. The young man backed up the truck not seeing the farmer’s young child behind him. The little one, maybe three or four years old, was killed. Dad never forgave himself for missing work that day. He always wondered if he had been there, would he have seen the child?
Stories, stories, so many stories, they tell us who we are. Dad is still with us, but the stories are gone or at least they are jumbled and confused. Having a parent with dementia is hard. Having a parent with dementia during the times of COVID-19 is even harder.
My father lives in a memory care unit and, like most facilities now, is not allowed visitors. His recognition of people over the phone is non-existent and video calling doesn’t make sense to him, so it is as if he is both here and not here at the same time. It is almost a preparation for his passing to have him in this world and yet not be able to reach him in any way.
I called him for Easter. I knew the phone might be a challenge, but I had to try. I couldn’t leave him alone for the holiday. The staff person told me he was sleepy, but she’d take the phone to him in the dining area. I could hear her explaining to him that he had a phone call, then explaining to him that the thing she was sharing with him was a phone. She told him to hold it to his ear and to say hello. I said “Hi Dad, it’s Amy. I just wanted to call you to say Happy Easter and to tell you that I love you.” I hoped that hearing my voice would help him understand and that he would say something. He said nothing.
The staff person came back on the phone and apologized to me saying that it seemed he just didn’t understand what the phone was. I told her it was okay and asked that she just let him know that I called and just to tell him Happy Easter and the family loves him.
I wish I could be there just to hold his hand. I got to hold his hand at Christmas time when he cried because he wanted to go see his mother. It broke my heart to hold the hand of my 91 year old father and tell him that grandma wasn’t with us anymore, but now all I have is the hope that he can join her soon and leave his confusion and sorrow behind, that hope and the stories of a lifetime.
My father was born in a blizzard in 1928. He entered a world of isolation where it was impossible to travel. He entered a world where the whirls of snow kept people apart from one another. But, eventually, the snow melted and he grew and thrived and the world was good to him.
Dad entered his 92nd year in another blizzard. This one had a name. We’re calling it COVID-19. This one is different. It has me wondering about the many other people across the world with aging family and friends in the same situation as my father. He has dementia and lives in a memory care unit.
Up until just a few years ago his mind was really quite sharp. Not too many years back he was able to live in an apartment on his own, then a care facility, and just a few months ago we made the decision to move him to memory care. I am thankful we made that decision and think we did the right thing. I wonder about him too.
Like others across the country, his facility is closed to visitors now to protect the health of the patients and care providers and the inhabitants are following strict regulations to keep everyone safe.
Before this virus, Dad had visitors a few times a week, mostly family. I couldn’t usually visit because I live a state away, but I had the comfort of knowing people could and were spending time with him. We have great faith in the staff of his living facility and have seen that they are doing wonderful work, but I wonder is that the equal to family and friends? A year ago I would have called him, but today the phone only confuses and frustrates him. A video call would be out of the question.
There was a moment when I saw him over the Christmas holidays that he said to me with tears in his eyes that he wanted to go see his Ma. He said that Ma shouldn’t be alone at Christmas. I explained to him that she wasn’t alone. That she was well and happy in heaven and that he’d see her there again some day. The words calmed him. I find myself caught now between wanting to be there with him holding his hand and making everything okay, thinking he shouldn’t be alone during this time, and just wishing he could go be with his Ma.
Dementia is a strange force in our lives and, I think, becomes even more so when outside forces join in taking our loved ones from us as this virus is doing right now. I am trying so hard right now to come up with some great and inspirational words, but none are coming. So maybe there is nothing more right now than to say– If you’re one of the people out there who’s been disconnected from someone you love because of dementia, if you’re struggling through not being able to be next to them much less communicate with them right now, you aren’t alone. There are a lot of us out here and we will get through this blizzard one way or another. Take good care my friends
I drove home to Wisconsin last weekend to celebrate Easter with my family. It’s a bit of hike for just a weekend, about an eight or nine hour drive each way. But, it was important. I needed both to get away to relax and to go see family especially my dad.
Dad turned 91 last month. He’s had a good journey through this life, seen a lot of both sorrow and joys, but largely I think joys have won out, six kids, twelve grandkids, and seven great-grandchildren all surrounded in love.
Things are changing with him now. They have been for several years at least, but now it’s moving faster. Dad is walking away, heading toward the next journey. Dad has dementia. No big surprise these days at 91, still it’s strange to watch, to see him go, and to feel the feelings that go with it.
I went home last weekend knowing it might be the last visit when Dad would know me. What a strange thing to wonder if one’s own father will recognize them. This time he did, though I think for a moment he may have confused me and one of my sisters. She and I look a lot alike so that made sense. Others, with healthy, functioning brains, confuse us as well.
There are a lot of sad stories out there about elderly people left alone in nursing homes with no one to visit them. I never understood that. How could someone leave an elder to die alone? I think I have some perspective now. It’s not necessarily a lack of love, but too much. It takes a lot of strength to be with the person you love when they are no longer there.
This became clear to me when my sister JoAnn, who is the primary caretaker for Dad, got a message from his care facility letting her know that he was having a rough day. We decided to stop by and check things out in person rather than just calling back.
We got there to find Dad confused and frustrated and as is becoming typical, not wearing his hearing aids. He thought some of his belongings were missing and he’d gone into other people’s rooms to find them. He’d come out with other people’s belongings and still believing his things were gone. He argued with us and the staff person, telling us if we didn’t find his missing clothing he’d just go find it himself.
It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to feel that unsafe in my home even more bizarre to think that without his hearing aids Dad just saw mouths moving, but couldn’t hear enough to understand the words being said. What would that be like to be in this place where nothing makes sense anymore?
I don’t know, but I can tell you that seeing Dad in that place tore my heart out. I can see why people stop visiting their aging parents when each visit acknowledges the pain and confusion and the reality that there is nothing we can do to make it better other than maybe just being there.
JoAnn was able to put his hearing aids in and work with staff to put away the belongings he’d taken while I just sat with him for a bit to help him calm. Then JoAnn and the staff reassured him by taking a look through his closet and assuring him that everything was there. Dad was calm and maybe a little reassured by the time we left. I came back later in the day to find him still confused and concerned about his belongings, but in a better mood and able to carry on conversation, albeit a strange conversation. At least he trusted me as I assured him that both he and his belongings were safe and cared for.
On Easter we had a family party. Dad was able to join us and proudly shared his little paper bunny basket full of candies with everyone. Most of the afternoon he just smiled at everyone. He did, at one point, introduce a granddaughter to her own father, but at least he knew who both of them were on some level. He just didn’t know they knew each other.
We were all glad that he could join us, but I think we all recognized with sadness that this was probably his last family party. He may live for more years, but he is, at the same time, leaving us. I don’t think any of us know quite what to do with that. I know that each moment of recognition, every hug and kiss means more to me than ever before.
Minnesota now feels a million miles away from home in Wisconsin. Dad can’t hold conversations on the phone anymore. He needs to see faces to be able to connect the sounds and have it make sense. I told him when we parted that I’d write to him. He thanked me and let me know that he wouldn’t write back. Dementia does sometimes encourage honesty, I guess.
I don’t know if I will ever get to really talk with him again. Even if we are someday in the same place together, will he be there?
I don’t know what all this means other than hold your elders close, honor them, love them, comfort them. The journey in this world is hard. Hopefully the spirit world gives comfort someday.