I sometimes wonder- when we’re out and about – what people think of this cute old guy , shuffling along holding my hand. Just this past week, we were in an antique mall together, just looking and giving him opportunity to walk some. One of the clerks made all over him. He smiled, looking almost shy, and responded brightly and humorously to her questions and comments. For ever how many minutes he would remember that encounter, it was a sweet experience for him…and the clerk…and for me.
My Dad is 92 years young and he has Alzheimer’s. His memory has taken a toll from this disease, but his personality is as fun and sunny as it’s ever been. He’s a jokester – loves to tease and engage others, especially children, and I don’t think he’s ever met a stranger. He has been a great story-teller, but this skill is passing into the twilight of his memory loss. Still, he is still so surprising, just this week popping out a joke I’d never heard [“I heard that there was this lady who was great at keeping house. Every time she got a divorce, she kept the house.”].
Mom died over 10 years ago, so Dad has been the one to teach me so much about growing old. I had an aunt who had Alzheimer’s years ago. In fact, my parents cared for her in their home for as long as they could. Her experience with Alzheimer’s made us all sad at the diminishing effects of it on her life. So far, Dad’s bout with this disease has not left him without his joy in life and his family. At 92, his friends are few, but his memories are so many and so rich that he still has some.
Toward the end of the Great Depression, Dad had to drop out of school to help his father with their farm. He worked alongside his little sister and marveled how she seemed to always pick more cotton than he did in a day. A mischief was born in my dad in those days that continues today. When he and his sister talk about these lean years growing up, they both have such a joy in them remembering those days. This sweet aunt also has Alzheimer’s, and although her memory, like Dad’s, has worsened, her personality continues to be untouched, again like Dad’s. It’s such a joy for me to see her face light up when Dad remembers a story that she also remembers.
Dad only finished 6th grade, but he schooled himself in life, learning farming from his dad, and then in the years since, carpentry, plumbing, electrical work. To me, he could always do anything.
As a teen, he went with the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked on various road and park projects with other young men. Then he joined the Army during World War II. He fought in the Hedgerow (or Hedge Grove) Battles of Normandy with the 315th Infantry. He was a machine gunner and worked with a rocket launcher team. When we were younger, Dad wouldn’t talk about the war, but in his elder years, and until Alzheimer’s dulled his memory of details, he would tell us about those days. He even once had a brief conversation with General George Patton. His stories sent me searching for details about those battles. Amazing stories.
He married very young and has 5 children from his first marriage. Some years later, when he married my mom, he also took on 4 more children of hers. He’s the only dad I’ve ever known. I’m so grateful for his love, and work ethic, and determination in life. He and mom made a good team. The years of growing up with them married were the years that I learned about Jesus and became a Christ-follower.
Dad always had a servant heart. If he wasn’t out on a service truck somewhere helping someone, he was on the phone, talking someone through how to fix something. Like I said, he loved to work, and never minded calls from family, friends, neighbors who needed him.
He and my mom would do a lot of serving together. They were very active in their church and also had a special heart for widows and the elderly. Their home was always open to people who needed a good meal or an encouraging word. Mom and Dad cared for an uncle and aunt, as well as an elderly friend. Two grandchildren also lived with them for awhile, along with their father during a difficult time of his own.They also traveled overseas together to see other grandchildren (that would be our children) while we were living in Egypt and then in Tunisia. Then Mom was diagnosed with cancer and for the three years she endured that disease, Dad was right there for her. We were home the last year, and as hard as it was for all of us having to say goodbye to Mom, we were so touched by the sweet love they had through all of it. Dad would come twice more to see us, while we lived in Morocco, before he put his passport away.
Dad has always been a character. Until his health started flagging (having had two cancers and severe cardiac issues), he was remarkably strong for his age. He says it’s from all the hard work he did all his life, and I believe him. He loves the Atlanta Braves (especially the years of Chipper Jones) and Southern Gospel music (the Gaither’s, in particular). I have never beat him in checkers. In fact, the only one who I knew could beat him was Mom. We don’t play checkers any more because when his memory started dimming, I didn’t want to take the chance that I might win. It would be so wrong.
He LOVES his grandchildren and great-grands. Full stop.
Before his eyesight worsened, he read the Bible most days (studied his Sunday School lesson) and the newspaper every day. He loved to go out an eat – fried fish, okra, chicken livers (emphasis on fried) and hot dogs at The Varsity. He had coffee every morning and loved whatever anyone set before him (his favorite being a sausage egg biscuit from Martin’s). The servers all knew him at his favorite local restaurants, and it was fun just sitting across from him, as they came around to wait our table and just to talk. He preferred Ford pickup trucks and always wanted a red one (which would be his last vehicle but it wasn’t a Ford – I guess it was a great deal). He had a poster of a red Ford truck on his bedroom wall for as long as I can remember.
I wanted to write about Dad today because next week, he enters an assisted living facility. It’s a beautiful place, and I know he’ll enjoy the activities and extra company he will have there. Still it’s another season of this incredible life of his, and I want to mark this transition.
Would I rather him live with me? Absolutely. It wasn’t my call, but I know it’s a good call. All the family, his pastor, and friends will make it a good transition for him. He will make a place for himself there, and we will all come see him and tell the stories back to him that he’s told us all these long years.
I have a little of Dad’s mischief in me because one of the things I do that annoys my family is to take pictures of them when they’re napping. Just like we love to watch children sweetly sleeping, that’s what moves me to capture these images. There in the middle of all his loud family gathered happily for his 90th birthday, Dad nods off. Maybe because of all the cake he put away (did I mention his sweet tooth?)…but more so, I think he sleeps safe in the sweet company of those who love him.
Finally, I love his hands. He used to have rough, work-worn hands. Strong and capable. Now, they are soft…and not so strong. That doesn’t matter. They are still beautiful…and now we hold his hands, like he once held ours. How thankful we all are that he’s still with us…in this different season of life.
Should you see Dad one day, and you see this little, shuffling hard-of-hearing man who struggles with balance and memory and pain “somewhere or other, all the time”, don’t miss him. He’s had a large life…and is still living it.
Understanding Alzheimer’s in 3 Minutes (video)
Alzheimer’s Disease – Caregiver Advice by Marie Marley, Author of Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy
5 Tips for Talking with a Person who has Alzheimer’s
Website for The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care by Virginia Bell & David Troxell
Facebook Page for Best Friends Approach
The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for People Who Have Alzheimer Disease, Related Dementias, and Memory Loss by Nancy Mace & Peter Rabins