After I punched in the security code (to keep residents in rather than us out), the heavy door released its lock allowing entrance to the memory care unit, First thing, I could hear Dad before even seeing him. He was sitting on the sofa, holding the toy he loves most – a dinosaur given to him by his daughter-in-law. [He thinks it’s a kangaroo, and, in fairness, it sort of looks like one]. He was staring off, repeating over and over, “I’m the boss. I’m the boss.”
The staff and other residents around this common room seemed completely unscathed by his declaration. A “stranger” entering the room broke the normalcy of the atmosphere. I’m sure they knew it made me uncomfortable to see my dad “lost” in some other consciousness. He has Alzheimer’s.
I’ve written about Dad’s life with Alzheimer’s before (here). He was admitted into an assisted living facility only four-and-a-half months ago. He continues to do very well, despite life-threatening situations (blocked carotid arteries, metastatic colon cancer, and now Alzheimer’s). He amazes me, really. It is obvious, from visit to visit, that his disease is taking its toll. Yet there’s so much of Dad there still, and we are all so grateful.
A couple of months ago, Dad could still have conversations with us. He needed prodding, but the stories would come – fascinating, detailed stories of his growing up years and ours. I have always loved his stories. And the funniest jokes. Even when they weren’t funny, he enjoyed them so much, it made them funny.
In recent weeks, conversations are becoming shorter, more of a chore. He still has great, comforting memories but the fire of remembering has to be stoked considerably. As far as short-term memory goes, he may not remember what he had for supper an hour ago, but he remembers so many other things. – that Dave loves strawberries, and that he still loves the Atlanta Braves, and exactly how to tease each of his grandchildren. When one of them visited recently and called his dinosaur a cat, he got all “offended”. Dad has fussed about it since, at each mention of grandson Jeremy’s name. He will forget eventually, but for now, it stirs an affectionate pot in his mind.
With Alzheimer’s, the world of those affected seems to get smaller and smaller. We used to have long, meandering conversations. I miss the dad of those conversations. We’ve been fortunate in that he is still much like himself, with less words. He loves to eat and loves to laugh. I treasure that laugh of his. He still loves people and having visits from his pastor, friends and family, and his hospice nurses.Especially his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Dad has gotten less interested in going out of his assisted living facility. It feels safe to him. Comfortable. Once we’re out though, he is engaged – talking to the other drivers, telling me how to drive, looking for coins on the road (like we’re going to stop and pick them up). Alzheimer’s took away his freedom to drive but it also took away his desire to drive – a strange companionship, this disease and those who contend with it.
One afternoon, we joined other residents in listening to and singing with a church choir in the great room of the facility – outside of the memory care unit. The world feels much larger there. The choir led in some old Gospel songs – “Victory in Jesus”, “Take It to the Lord in Prayer”, “I’ll Fly Away”. At first Dad seemed to really enjoy the singing, and then, he “went away”. Lost in his thoughts and memories. I left him there…somewhere apart, following a scene I could not see.
After the choir finished, we walked back to the memory care unit, and he joined others for supper. Each has his or her own incredible life. Each now with different companions than they might have chosen – both at the table with them, and inside their own thoughts.
In watching Dad through his diminishing memory, and seeing those around him struggle, I’m struck by the dignity of life that we must battle to preserve. This quieter, mind-wandering, lovely old gentleman is still our Dad.
His repetitive “I’m the boss. I’m the boss.” is not surprising. With little education afforded to him as a farmer’s son during the Great Depression, he was rarely anyone’s boss. However, he has lived his life (for all the time I’ve known him) with such a confidence and determination, with autonomy and authority. With so much dignity that not even dementia can steal, hopefully.
Now, with Alzheimer’s, he won’t be easily convinced that he’s NOT the boss.
Maybe, it’s his turn…for a season.
[Big Dogs t-shirt with message (on the back) “I Am the Boss” – Happy Father’s Day present from that same daughter-in-law with a knack for great gifts – as in the dinosaur/kangaroo/cat toy Dad loves]