Alzheimers..The Long Goodbye
My siblings and I have been coping with my Dad’s long goodbye since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in January, 2011, about 3 1/2 years ago. Actually, we noticed signs for about a year prior to the formal diagnosis but they were transient at first and could be chalked up to “normal aging”. In December of 2010, he and I went cross country skiing together. That would be the last time he was on skis. There have been several “last times”, and I’m sure there will be more. There was the “last time” he drove his car, the “last time” he played a round of golf; the “last time” he lived by himself; to name a few. Each stage has been like a death in itself. The first year, I was able to go to visit on weekends, and take care of things like bills, errands, etc..Then in the summer of 2012, he moved in with my sister in Florida. He now has in-home nursing care, and needs assistance with most things. He still recognizes me when I call, but the calls are getting shorter, and the conversations are disjointed and disoriented. Once in a while, it feels like “he” pops back in for a brief bit and he will remember something from the past; but now our connection is more about just connecting. There is so much non-verbally that can and does still get communicated between the words.
My mother had passed away in 2003 from ovarian cancer. They were married for 43 years. My mother was quite a character, sometimes you weren’t quite sure if she even knew how funny she actually was. She also could stir things up around our family home, while my Dad was more quiet and reserved. While there are many ways in which I am like my mother, for better or worse; there are many unmistakable ways in which I am more like my dad.
Toward the end of High School, and the beginning of college things changed in our family when my father’s steady place of employment closed after he had worked there for almost 30 years. This affected him greatly, being as he is of the depression era generation, who counted on loyalty to the company, in exchange for stability, raises, pensions, etc.. He had just fallen short in some way that wasn’t clear to me at the time, but I know that he lost a lot as a result of this. If diagnosed, I’m sure he would have met criteria for depression and/or generalized anxiety disorder at this time but of course, mental health assistance was not something he or probably anyone of his generation would have considered if he could still function and work. My mother’s cancer diagnosis hit him very hard. My dad, having been an only child, relied on my mother for making the social plans for them. The two relied on each other greatly.
What’s true for me is that I was and still am a “Daddy’s Girl”. He was the first man I ever loved, and it was pretty darn hard to find anyone that could measure up to him. He was my hero. I liked the way he smelled, and would pick me up and put me on his shoulders when he got home from work. He always read stories to us and sometimes made up his own. He helped coach my brother’s ball teams when he was little, and my sister’s softball teams. I was a “girly girl”, and he would pick me up from my dance classes, calling me his “Tina Marie”. When I was upset, he could calm me down, and make me feel like everything was always going to be alright. I’m so grateful for having had that sense of stability early on. I have to say that this experience has kept me feeling a bit unbalanced much of the time.
I learned a lot from my dad. He and his parents valued education, and definitely valued hard work and honesty. A couple other things about my Dad are: his love for nature, and his continued belief in getting exercise. When I was younger, I remember going on many hikes with my dad and brother. My sister, being a few years older, usually had some extra curricular activity going on, so I remember many Saturdays where we would walk and pack something to eat; and he would point out different things along the way, different types of birds, trees, stories about camping. As a teenager these walks stopped, but they resumed again when I would be on break from college, and way into my adulthood when we would get together. I love hiking today as a result. My dad also got each of us involved in sports. My brother and sister played various team sports, while I opted for dancing and tennis. He took an interest in our activities growing up. Our house was the house where most of the kids in the neighborhood hung out. We had a lot of fun much of the time. I think that having two parents in the home provided me with a strong foundation. Being relational, girls learn a lot from how parents interact together (meaning both same sex couples and heterosexual couples) and with us.
I treasure the memories I have of my Dad and our walks/talks and trips. It has been such a difficult process to see his slow and steady decline. Some of the difficulty is due to the lack of being able to process with him about what is happening to him, because he will forget that he forgets. When someone has dementia in the family the family members carry the emotions, whether or not they are the actual caretakers. Someone has to hold the emotional content of what is going on. Sometimes people use food or substances to cope and self soothe; other times, stress induced illnesses in other family members surface. My siblings and I bicker at times in our helplessness, and frustration. I feel tired a lot even though my Dad is in a different state. I worry, and fret, and miss him. I miss him – his self, and his physical self.
It’s hard to take care of yourself when you add sick parents to your plate at mid-life. sleeping continues to be difficult. Late to bed, Late to Rise…stressed, heavy, and burdened by grief.