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 desserts me.
Something like childhood homesickness ambushes
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 icareinsite.com and
caregivingelderlyparents.com. 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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