My father will be 86 years old this weekend. He keeps asking me: “how old am I?” and when I tell him, he says: “that old?’ I tell him he was born in July of 1919 and now it is 2005 so that makes him 86. This conversation is one of his favorites. We repeat it usually half a dozen times in a single conversation.
It is amazing that Dad has lived so long, but several years ago Dad was diagnosed with dementia, probably alzheimers. Now, he doesn’t remember anything recent for more than a few minutes. The shift from daughter to care-giver to being responsible for most aspects of his life has been swift, startling and shocking for me. When I see him, I feel as though we are still on our beloved sailboat, but he has fallen overboard and the current is swiftly carrying him away from the boat as I frantically throw whatever I can find overboard for him to grab, as I was taught to do. The boat keeps sailing forward as he waves his arms like a drowning man and moves backward. He is still in my sight but I can’t catch him and I feel helpless as he continues to move away from me, away on the tide of life, towards death.
My father was a physician–an internist and a cardiologist. According to legions of grateful patients, he was a great doctors. They adored him. He retired when he realized that he was spending more time dealing with insurance issues and was less able to take the time to really talk to his patients, get to know them, and treat the whole person, not just the “why did you come here today?” line on the patient information form.
He even made house calls.
Being a cardiologist, dad’s patients were often elderly–very elderly, actually. He told me that he had seen so many people kept alive by artificial means and literally “tortured” to death that he was fearful of the happening to him. He was a strong advocate for rights for dying.
The very thing that he feared the most–not being able to be in control of his life and his decisions, is happening. He told me that he didn’t expect to live past his mid 70’s, because the odds of a man living longer are still small, but he has exceeded that by many years. His body is fairly strong, where his mind, is not.
Dad was a skilled pianist. He spoke several languages and played several instruments. He holds several patents. He has won awards and citations and was President of both the County and State medical societies. He published a book. He painted and loved to do all sorts of crafts. When my sister and I were very young, he built a double sandbox, a double swing, and a full-sized, working carousel with a zebra, elephant with leather ears, a leopard, and something else I can’t quite remember. Kids all over the neighborhood envied us!
Now Dad can’t play the piano. He can’t turn on a stero. I am not sure if he can read, or not. He has forgotten how to write with a pen because he doesn’t need to do it anymore. It really bothers me that his skills have diminished to the point where he can no longer do the things he loves. I know it bothers him, even more.
For Dad’s 86th birthday I ended up in the toy department. I used to buy him books, cds, concert tickets. This time I purchased an easy-to-do jigsaw puzzle, a box of dominoes, and a do-it-yourself kit for a gumball machine. I felt odd buying things for an 86 year old man that were “suitable for ages 12 and up.” The toys will force him to focus and use whatever bits of his mind still are capable of thought. What would be the point of buying him things that he couldn’t use, just because it would make ME feel like he was still normal?
It’s so hard to watch this amazing man that I adored, fade away. But I will take Dad to dinner and wish him another year of health and happiness, even though I am fairly sure he will have neither.
Jacqueline Marcell is an author / Publisher / Radio Host / Speaker / Eldercare Advocate / Breast Cancer Survivor and author of the book Elder Rage, or Take My Father… Please! How to Survive Caring for Aging Parents. She offers the following:
Ten Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s
1. Recent memory loss that affects job skills
2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks
3. Problems with language
4. Disorientation of time and place
5. Poor or decreased judgment
6. Problems with abstract thinking
7. Misplacing things
8. Changes in mood or behavior
9. Changes in personality
10. Loss of initiative