When a Dementia Diagnosis is a Gift

We celebrated my father’s 87th birthday a couple of weeks ago. Last week during a routine check-up, his doctor told he and my mother that he is in the early stages of dementia. 

I wasn’t surprised to hear this as I’ve seen signs of memory issues coming for some time. He’s asked me the same question or shared the same story repeatedly in a single phone conversation. I’ve experience my father struggling to remember something familiar while in the midst of speaking. Sometimes what feels like an unrelated comment will come out of nowhere. I’ve heard him confusing the details of an event, like reporting that a telephone appointment was a live meeting. My mother has shared that he’s recently asked her if she was 40 years old, and if she knew that he has a son. 

When I first talked to my father about his diagnosis, he told me that he knew this had been progressing for a while. I felt exuberant that he could speak so coherently about the issue. He never said anything to any of us in the family, and yet he was totally accepting of the news when it came. He told me on the phone that night they got the news, “It is what it is. I can’t change it. I’ve lived a good life. I’ve had a good wife. I have good kids. What more can I want?” 

A Heart-Warming Evolution 

Over the past year I’ve seen signs that my father is sensing the end of his life. Every phone conversation or visit has blessed me with at least one, usually more, verbal expressions of his love. Occasionally he’ll break down in tears while telling me he loves me. “You’re in my heart”, he has said to me, his only daughter.  

It has been heart-warming to experience my father evolving emotionally over the decades. Having lost his mother at age 12 and equipped with less than a high school education, he immigrated to the United States from the island of Malta with two of his brothers at age 17. He landed in San Francisco living two houses away from the woman who would become my mother. He married her at age 22 and spent his career working as a longshoreman on the waterfront. My older brother was born a year later and I followed the next year.  

Back in that day fatherhood was viewed very differently. My father was the breadwinner and my mother took care of the household. Although I always felt a bond with my dad due to the unique relationship we shared as father and daughter, I can’t say I was close with him. When I got into my teens, I would hold my breath when my friends were in our home, hoping my dad would not embarrass me with the profanity he regularly indulged in. As we both grew older, I began to see a softer side of him, particularly after he retired. I sensed that as he moved away from the guys on the docks, he felt freer to communicate from the heart and his language of the past was cast aside. 

The Gift in the Diagnosis 

After my mom called to tell me about the diagnosis, my husband Dean remarked that I was taking the news very well. I told him that I had seen it coming and that it was no surprise. It was actually a relief to me that my father’s condition had been defined. First, it’s now at the top of his medical records and he is undergoing treatment in an effort to slow the progression of the disease. We now have clarity on why he says some of the things he says, or why he sometimes shows up in uncharacteristic behavior. I’ve let go of my impulse to correct the facts. Yet most of all, those of us who love him can prepare to make the most of our time with him and be as ready as possible for what will lie ahead. 

If you have any personal experience with loved ones with dementia, I would love to hear any insights you’d like to share. 

Accepting the Reality of Aging Parents

My 86-year-old father has arthritis in his back so badly that he cannot stand up straight. When I visited him this past weekend his back was more bent over than ever. And it had only been three weeks since my last visit.

The significance of the issues with my father’s back first came to my radar when my now husband, Dean and I took my father and mother to a rustic Northern California coastal resort to celebrate his 80th birthday. It was mid-January, and we were blessed to have seaside temperatures in the sunny 70s, when a bank of fog and wind would typically cool the weather into the 50s. I felt that our time together had been given a gift.

Recognizing the Pain

After we checked in to the hotel, we walked our luggage up the stairs from the open-air lobby to our second-floor rooms.  This became my first experience in recognizing that my father was beginning to struggle with his physical condition. He was struggling to climb the stairs that would lead us to our rooms. My father’s gestures showed that he was frustrated by these challenges. The rest of us didn’t bring any attention to it.

Once we all got to our adjacent rooms, we had a wonderful time being together. We chatted about lots of different topics, something that visits with the responsibilities of home didn’t come as easily.

Yet at the time I didn’t fully apprehend the reality of what was taking place. It was too new to me. We were moving into a new phase.

Dean and I got married nine months later.  Throughout the course of our reception, I observed my father in a visible state of physical pain. It was the first time I’d seen him use a cane in public. As much as I know he loved me and his then new son-in-law, his physical pain that day had overridden his joy.

Empathy of Pain

My latest visit with my parents enabled me to recognize once again that my father is living in a state of chronic pain. His quality of life is clearly not good, and my mother lovingly bears the burden of caretaker. She admits that she is exhausted all the time taking care of my father and all the household needs. My father doesn’t complain, yet it’s clear from his disposition that he is not happy about the limitations of his physical condition.

A Turning Point

I now recognize that this is a challenge for my family that isn’t going away. I cannot turn my head, hoping it will go away.  I need to put energy towards educating myself to help my parents get through the health issues ahead of them. While I clearly need to be a greater physical presence in their lives, I need to develop a fuller plan.

Last night on the phone I told my mother that I recognized how much she did and acknowledged that she needed help. She told me that it was her job and that she would let me know when she needed help. She’s never been one to have household help. The gardener who has mowed their lawn over the last decade has been the extent of their outside help.

What to Do Now

I’ve committed to spend more time with my parents to not only support them, but to get a better picture of what’s going on with them. From that will come the discovery of what their insurance covers and all of that stuff. My parents walked me through this some 15 years ago, a time where I felt the need to know was so far in the future that I didn’t take good notes.

I’ve got to step up to the plate now.

Any insights you can offer on your own experiences would be great.