Dementia is that category of illness that includes Alzheimer’s as well as other causes of mental deterioration. Some people live with progressive dementia over a long course of time. My father live with it for 6 years.
My father’s dementia was most likely of the vascular type, a result of several strokes. Over time he became difficult to manage because of his temper. He also slowly, slowly lost his past.
It is most often a parent who develops dementia and a child who journeys with them until the parent dies. It can be a long slow journey to that door. However, it also happens to spouses, living day to day “in sickness and in health.”
What I found most difficult about that journey with my father was that I lost him a little bit at a time. My wife commented that, when I came home from visiting with him, I was often sad. Usually there would be some little sign — a forgotten friend, a messed up checkbook, a struggle for a word — that reflected this long slow journey. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer and died 3 weeks later. While that death was very painful, in many ways the manner in which I lost my father was more so because it was so prolonged.
The one positive was that, once he was properly medicated, he was able to greatly enjoy the moment. In our day, it is popular to remind ourselves to live in the moment. The last time I saw my Dad before he fell and lapsed into a week-long coma, my wife also came for a visit. She had put on some make-up and wore a pretty blouse. My father, who always had an eye for a pretty girl, was delighted. He truly was living in the moment.
I was not a 24/7 caretaker for my Dad. Others have shared that journey with me and it is an exquisitely painful one. Such caretakers are vulnerable to depression and physical illness. Seeking help and support is essential.
Given my spiritual struggles, I have often questioned God about this disease. Perhaps God has nothing to do with it. Perhaps it’s simply as my cousin said; “Sometimes we live too long.”
I am grateful that my father was willing to move from Scranton to El Paso so that I could more easily help him. I am grateful that he didn’t fight me on giving up his car. I am grateful that he was able to admit when it was time for me to take over his checkbook. And I was very grateful when the Lord finally took him.
For a while after his death, I could only see the images of him toward the end. Thankfully, in time, I was able to recover the way I wanted to remember him.
So if you are making this journey with a loved one, reach out for help. Find some form of respite care so that you can get a break. And be patient with yourself. It’s a long slow journey.
RESOURCES: Many communities nowadays have some form of support group for families with members suffering from Alzheimer’s. The book The 36 Hour Day I found extremely helpful.