01 Oct Gems
Many people find themselves navigating the challenge of having aging parents. It’s tough to witness a loved one’s frailty, particularly when he or she has dementia. When speaking with those who are struggling with their parent’s decline, I have come to suggest treasuring the gems offered up in each moment, rather than trying to make one’s father or mother “better.” It’s true we can at times help an elderly person recover their health after an accident or illness, but we cannot save them from the arc of life itself. As we all know, at least intellectually, life eventually comes to an end. And with dementia, it often feels like life is eaten away in slow motion.
Below is a chronology, of sorts, of my dad’s progression through dementia. I offer it as a tribute to him and to all those who love and care for folks with this affliction.
In my experience with my own father’s diminished mental acuity, eventually, he couldn’t retain what day it was. Soon moment-to-moment events, even big celebrations, disappeared like writing on the sand swept clean by an incoming wave.
Fortunately Dad has always been a sweet, sweet man. So as his memories and his ability to talk and even recognize my sisters and I have faded, his sweet and kind nature remains. And those very brief lucid moments are gems we savor.
My mom was still alive on Dad’s 90th birthday, and my sisters, Shya and I all joined them for a special celebration near the Columbia river in Oregon. We had delicious meals and Dad was given ice cream and a slice of cake with a candle to commemorate the day.
After we ate, Dad wanted a cigar (he was still addicted to them in those days) so Shya escorted him down a short hallway to head outside. As they were walking, they had a conversation:
“I’m confused. What’s happening?” Dad said.
“That’s okay, Don, we’re just heading outside so you can have a cigar.” Shya replied.
“Where are we?”
“We’re at a restaurant. We just celebrated your birthday with Geri and the girls.”
“We did? Okay.”
As his dementia progressed there was no real continuity to Dad’s experience of life, as clearly he could not recall things from a few moments ago, much less yesterday. Yet distant memories could sometimes be accessed with the right stimulus – such as the time we visited the Evergreen museum, which is filled with old airplanes. On that day, Dad recalled that when he joined the military he signed up to be a paratrooper because they got paid a few more dollars each week and they had “really cool boots.” To his chagrin, he discovered during basic training that he was afraid of heights!
At one stage, Dad found sleeping and dreaming to be a respite, not only from the confusion of sights and sounds but also disconnected thoughts. His dreams were real to him, experiences that appeared to have continuity rather than being disjointed. My mom once told me he came rushing out of the bedroom after waking from a nap saying, “Where’s my little drama girl?” He had had a dream of me from when I was a child. In the dream, I was performing in plays that seemed so real he thought I was waiting for him just down the hall. When Mom told him I was all grown up now, she said he went back to bed to try and dream and be with me again.
Slowly, Dad became more non-verbal. He enjoyed petting my sister’s little dog, Bijoux, all afternoon and found familiar music soothing. He spent long hours holding my mom’s hand and when I went to visit, mine. Once, while sitting on the couch for quite awhile, he looked down at my sneakers which were covered in vivid shades of neon orange, lemon yellow and bright green. Suddenly he said, “Next time, why don’t you get a pair of bright shoes.” For a moment, his confusion had parted and Dad’s sense of humor peeked through.
By the time Dad reached his 95th birthday, he had been living in a beautiful family-operated care home for some time. My sister Mary and I both came in from out of town to celebrate the day. He had several upbeat moments with us, much to our delight. Later the same day, there were other moments that were painful to behold – moments where he experienced panic, fear and disorientation.
As I am writing this, my father’s health continues its decline. He has been in hospice at his care home for several months. In March I flew to Oregon to see him and he was sleepy and confused. While my sister Cathy and I looked familiar, we could tell he didn’t have a handle on who we were. Although when Cath would rub his back and ask, “Does this feel good?”, his heartfelt reply was “Oh yes!”
On the last day of my visit, I came to see him. As I entered the front door to the care home, I saw he was seated in a living room chair.
I said, “Hi Dad” as I gave him a kiss. And then an amazing thing happened. His eyes became clear for an instant. He put his hand on my left cheek and said, “It’s good to see you.” For that moment, Dad was really there – with me, seeing me. Then he nestled down in his chair and went back to sleep.
I haven’t expected to have a day with my father where we create memories together. Rather, I have gathered separate moments. Some are of pain and confusion, illness and distress. Those moments I have met with compassion and have embraced them, letting the edges soften with the passing of time. Other moments I hold to my heart. They are bright shiny gems that sparkle with sweetness and love.
Addendum: I finalized my edits for this article on Tuesday morning, May 17th. My sisters and I had been sitting in vigil with my dad in his final hours for more than a day by then – me via Zoom. I knew as I worked on Gems that his passing was imminent but I wanted to keep the writing in present tense with him still in this world. Dad passed later that day, at 3:10pm Eastern time. Don Van Zyl is still in this world in my heart and in those whose lives he has touched – including yours.