It started out small. Dad would be confused in the present, everyday life. He would forget to take his medication, but swear that he did. He would put his clothes on backwards and then laugh when I would help him put them on the right way again. He would think that he ate, swear that he ate, but his meal would sit on the table in front of him. The dementia would come and go, this horrible disease that steals a person’s dignity slowly, sometimes kept at bay when I visited – making me think, for a moment, that he had just had an “off day.” It was gradual and debilitating, taking away simple things, like being able to add numbers together to solve a math problem, or writing his name with pen on lined paper, or remembering his daughter. Me.
He remembered the past, though, with the crystal clear mind of a person living in the moment. He thought Momma was alive, in the next room or out shopping for a few hours, even though she had been gone from us for years. Remembering five daughters, a best friend, sailing and flying a Cessna with the love of his life, my mother seemed easier for him.
Dealing with a parent who has dementia is emotional and heart-wrenching. Holding hands in the courtyard of a rest home and letting Dad talk about flying an F85, even though he had never been in the war, led to a ride home full of tears, gut-wrenching sobs and confusion for me. I went along with all of his delusional stories. He was a rock digger and waiting to get paid by his employer. He was training for a secret mission by the President during a war. He was going shopping for an RV so he and Momma could travel the world together in these later years. Nurses and doctors alike told me that he was in a place that gave him peace in his mind now. If I argued with him and tried to bring him “back into today,” the result would be agitation and possibly harmful.
I made a book of pictures from slides Dad had taken while we were all growing up. I placed them in a scrapbook and we would pour over them during every visit. He would smile and ask how everyone was,wondering where they were in the country, hoping they were alright and happy in their lives.
Dad loved watermelon slices sprinkled with salt. He ate the fresh fruit all of the time, spitting seeds at us with great accuracy during family cookouts or picnics at the beach. Now, the both of us would sit outside and he would take his time eating each piece, the juice dripping down his chin, enjoying the sunshine and fresh air out of the home for awhile.
Dad spent his last Christmas with me for company. We sat in the living room with other residents, eating cake and turkey, watching the film The Santa Claus in the dark. He cried through the entire movie and kept tight hold of my hand. He asked me if I had good memories of him and Momma and all of our Christmases as a family. “Yes.” I hugged him. ” I have the best memories, Dad. I love THIS holiday the most, because of how special you both made it for us.”
There came a day, not long after, when Papa looked at me when I came to visit. I could tell he knew I was someone he should know. I could see a flicker of recognition in his eyes, a struggle for my name, but he could not come up with it. I thought I would die. I thought that my heart was going to break in a million pieces. Instead I smiled. I took his hand and told him who I was. His daughter, Resa. He nodded and sighed in relief. I had spared him some embarrassment.
Dad used my name one more time, as he was dying in the hospital. He looked right at me and said, “Resa, I love you, Thank you for not letting me be alone.” We cried together. He was here, right now, and he knew what was coming. So did I. The child in me wanted my father to save the day, to tell me that everything was going to be alright. The adult in me knew that I could help ease the way for him. I could be brave and say all I needed to, letting him know how much he meant to me. How much he and Momma would always mean to me.
Dementia is a disease that affects the patient and the caregiver, the family and the friends of its victim. Love the ones you love now, and with everything you have. Because it sneaks up and creeps in and changes everything.
I am a 55 year-old daughter living in New York who took part in the care of my parents during their last years. I have wonderful memories of my childhood and hope that, when they left this earth, they took some wonderful memories with them as well.