Where Is the Dad I Used to Know?

I usually talk about clients, volunteers, and the needs of HFM, but a couple of nights ago I was messaging with Dawn, an old friend of mine, who has, you guessed it, frail aging parents.   Dawn and I began our journey together as teacher colleagues in the early 1990’s soon after I lost my mother to colon cancer.   Over the years, Dawn and I have shared the adventures of marriage, mortgage, and motherhood, and I was privileged to get to know her parents, as well.  As is with the circle of life, we have now been sharing the challenges associated with aging parents.

Anyway, Dawn and I were chatting about the challenges she is facing as her father has been diagnosed with cancer and also has dementia. Dawn’s mother is the primary caregiver with her sister and niece helping with respite.  Dawn lives about three hours away from them and has a family and career that makes it impossible to spend the time with her parents that she might feel she should.  This triggered me back to the challenges my sister, Jane, and I faced when our Dad’s health began to fail and we realized, or maybe I should say, we began to accept Dad’s dementia.

While Dad passed this last January of bone marrow cancer, I think we accepted that diagnosis much easier than watching the personality changes that occurred with his dementia.  The onset was gradual and began when he was living independently in his home.  The symptoms included changes in behavior, giving away more money than he had coming in, changes in temperament, being fearful, and generally making poor choices that we had not witnessed in the past.  With intense intervention, Dad agreed to move to OK near our brother and downsize so he didn’t have to take care of a large home and yard.  What we didn’t realize was that the move would immediately bring on more anxiety and a total dependence on my brother and his family for Dad’s care.

After a fall, a knee replacement, and a possible TIA, we knew Dad could no longer live alone.  We moved him to Florida, where he was immediately diagnosed with an infection that sent him to a hospital with release to rehab and right into long term care.  Actually, we were blessed.  Even though there was a long waitlist for beds in long term care, God, in his infinite wisdom, intervened and saved us from the plight faced by many of the caregivers who reach out to us at HFM.  God made sure Dad got to stay in a beautiful facility where he could be safe, dry, and even though he was not happy about the situation, he was in good hands.

Oh, there was such guilt we carried!  Here we were working to help other frail seniors stay in their homes while we visited daily with our Dad whom WE put into a nursing home. When Dad would contract infections that would lead to time in isolation, Jane and I would take turns staying up to eight hours a day with him so he wouldn’t have to be alone.  I still cannot bring myself to watch Gilligan’s Island or Gunsmoke as these were two of the shows that we would watch over and over to pass the day.

There was a time the nursing home would call one of us to talk to Dad when they reported he was combative and using language we’d never heard our father use.  At first we thought the facility was surely fabricating such stories, because we had not witnessed this behavior before.  Eventually, we not only witnessed this but we found ourselves to be the target of these behaviors, as well.  Who was this person?  What happened to our Dad?

Long story short, by the time Dad passed, we were relieved.  There, I said it out loud.He was no longer angry and in pain.  He was no longer trapped inside a body that had worn out.  He was free and at peace.  By this time we had not even had much of a glimmer of the Dad we knew in over a year.  We had time to grieve while his systems slowly shut down.  Always my first teacher, Dad gave me an opportunity to learn so much during this time with him.  For that and many other things, I am grateful.

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