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
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
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 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.