For About and By Caregivers
Coots and the Christmas Gulls

By Marky J. Olson


Thatís my dad with his beautiful snow-white curls framed by the lake.  He still knows me, but the last stroke left him in a wheelchair, in an adult family home, and with dementia.  His love of 65 years has been gone for almost two years now.

Your mother was just here and I wish she would stay.  She just wonít settle down!

What did she say to you, Daddy?

Weíre not going to Hawaii after all.


Iím really tired today.  I was in Tokyo last night and I flew 12 missions.

I would be tired too!  Tell me more about last night.

I got all of the tomatoes picked up, but did you pick up the ball hoop last night?

Sometimes, gentle humor works: "I'm glad you got those tomatoes, because that will save me a trip to the store." But not always. When the caregiver calls in the evening, I know my dad is experiencing sundowners, a colloquial term for dementia that worsens in the evening. I try to calm him down on the phone. Sometimes, just hearing my voice is enough. When it isnít, I let go of my anti-medication bias.  Because.  I want my dad safe, I respect those who care for him and I want us all to sleep at night. For the most part, a small daily dose of an anti-depressant seems to be working.

This dementia undermines dignity. And it robs me of a gentle way of accepting my fatherís failing health. We arenít able to sit together, recalling fond memories. It denies us the comforting rhythm of normal conversation. As I tuck my dad in for his nap, he looks small. He likes the blanket close around him; that cocoon of comfort is one of the few he has left. He looks up at me and says,

Sometimes I forget things.

My hard-won adult confidence deserts me.  Something like childhood  homesickness ambushes me.

I chose the adult family home following a stroke that left my dad unable to return to the assisted living he had shared with Mom for six years. My dadís needs would be met, there was room available and the care appeared to be good.   It was a modest home and certainly not Ďstate-of-the-artí accessible, but I didnít focus on that.  It was the lake.   The home nestled at the southern end of a beautiful eight-mile-long lake not far from my house.  As I stood there the first time I walked in, I was a child again, watching my dad build our first boat.  My brothers and I learned to water ski behind that little boat on a local lake with the freedom of 1950s rules.  Willa Cather understood completely: The great fact in life, the always possible escape from dullness, was the lake.  The sun rose out of it, the day began there; it was like an open door that nobody could shut.  The land and all its dreariness could never close in on you.  You had only to look at the lake, and you knew you would soon be free.

Walking in one day in December, I look past the dining room table to see little black bird-ducks congregating near the shore and beautiful ďdancing ducksĒ out in the lake.  I stop and take in the now familiar site of my father in his orange Oregon State sweatshirt, framed by his wheelchair with the lake in the background.   (The son of another resident had explained earlier that the black bird-ducks were coots and that the dancing ducks were just gulls. What?  Just gulls? We settled on Christmas Gulls.)  I sit down at the lunch table with The Dads.  The caregiver has stepped out for a minute and I am at the table with five gentle souls, each lost in his own dementia and memory-fueled reveries.  No one speaks as they eat their lunches.  It is true companionable silence.  The old hands slowly raise foam-fattened forks for arthritic fingers to grip. Cups have lids and double handles.  Bibs are worn with pride. The camaraderie is palpable, profound and reflects the wisdom of lives well-spent.  Christmas anticipation has mellowed into contentment and each wrinkled face reveals a gallery of memories.  I look out to the lake and watch the Christmas gulls and the coots.   Deep Silence. Pure Faith.

Just gulls and old coots no longer. Their elevated connotation signifies men whose lives were worthy, unique, interesting and are now full of the sense of experience. The tiny decorated tree and the holiday lights dance along with the coots and Christmas gulls. The lake is an open door that never closes and my dad will soon be free.


A retired teacher, Marky Olson blogs for and Her co-authored book, Caregiving for Your Elderly Parents, is available on both websites.  She speaks to many audiences about the emotional challenges of caring for elderly parents and loved ones.


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