I want to dedicate this to mon cher Papa, who isn’t often the focus of my blog posts. He’s just so easy to care for that he factors less in the specificity of “lessons learned”, in terms of caregiving challenges. And yet I’m learning so much from him.
He’s one of those good-natured seniors with dementia who calmly accepts his fate, who doesn’t ask for much, who is content to sit and watch the birds at the feeder… one of those seniors who is not a “squeaky wheel”, in other words, and so who doesn’t get a lot of attention, one way or the other. These seniors don’t have the nurse rushing to answer their call, because they respect the nurses’ time and don’t want to take advantage. They eat what’s put in front of them and are grateful for every bite. They seem genuinely happy to see everyone else bustle around, while they sit quietly for hours on end, awaiting their turn.
My father’s biggest joy these days is making people laugh, with his silly jokes and one-liners that never fail to make him laugh. He doesn’t seem to mind if you don’t laugh with him, although he certainly brightens up if you do. As a career salesman, he shows me glimpses of how he put his customers at ease with small talk, humour, little bits of trivia… he has honed this skill, and is good at it. For a brief moment each day, he makes friends along the way. I’ve learned how positive that makes the average day.
We had a wait recently for a dental appointment, and went for a leisurely walk that took about a half hour, through a neighbourhood that he hadn’t seen before and over a footbridge spanning a small canal. His hand clenched in mine, we walked slowly and steadily. It was the first nice day of spring, and he kept commenting on the beauty of the day, the bright blue skies above. As we walked along, he pointed out different home constructions – he’s fascinated by corner lots, the pitch of a driveway, the trees and landscaping around a property. There were construction workers opening up the sewer; he wanted to watch so we stood for a while there, father and daughter, silent observers. “What are they doing, do you know?”, he asked me. He would have liked to ask them, but didn’t want to disturb them at work. My father is very much in the moment, and living fully within each moment. He has taught me the “zen” of dementia.
At home, he always greets me with a smile and stands up, more slowly each year, to get his hug. We give each other a long-lasting, firm hug, and I try to fill him up with my loving energy, my strength. He always exclaims after, “Oh my! I feel so much better now!” When I wash his hair and massage his scalp, he always exclaims with delight “Oh! You’re so good at that!” as if he’s just discovering hidden talents in his children. Each time I prepare him lunch, he looks at me with awe, “You made that? Wow, I’m impressed! It’s like I’m in a restaurant!”
My father is the King of Repetition, and this has just become part of his charm. On our walks around the neighbourhood, he always makes the same comments at the same junctures, over and over. “I wonder who lives there?” he always asks when we pass a certain rather dilapidated house. “Look at that driveway,” he always mentions a bit further along, in front of a townhome of sorts. “It’s so steep they have to put the emergency brake on the car, you know that?”
Further along, in front of the park, he will stop in the middle of the sidewalk at a three-way intersection. The sidewalk continues, but the road goes off to the left. The first time he did this, I thought something was wrong. I had walked ahead, and turned to see why he had stopped in his tracks. There was a big, boyish grin on his face as he stood there, pointing to the sign over his head. A red STOP, for the cars turning left on the road. Ha ha, Papa! And now he does this every time, with the same glee and surprise that he did the first time. Note to self: Get photo, get video, remember this, it will be in your heart forever.
Five minutes into our drive to lunch on Fridays, he will turn to me and say “So, what’s up Pumpkin? What’s new with you?” And I fill him in on my boring life. But he’s always interested in hearing what’s going on, and he always concludes our heart-to-hearts with the same beautiful blessing, “We’re so lucky to have you in our lives, thank you for everything you do.” Which never fails to make me cry, given how hard he worked to be a good provider, and all that he did for his entire family, including helping his own mother and older sister through their dementias.
We’re very comfortable sitting in silence in the park (weather permitting), and there are a few songs that we’ve learned to sing together, French and English. Some are classics by Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole, some are songs that I remember from their favourite LPs, including the soundtrack of South Pacific and similar musicals of the era. All I have to do, no matter where we are, is sing the first few words and he’s all in – soon, we’re both belting it out together, to heck with our bad pitch! Although he has a very nice voice, I must say.
And, thanks to his colossal sweet tooth, we have revised the rules in the household and managed to convince my mother that, after all, it’s OK to eat all the cake you want at this stage of your life. My mother was always pretty strict about rationing sweets, and that was her role in keeping us all healthy! But even she is giving into her sweet-treat moments*, so now we just laugh about it and reach for another cookie.
My father is in good physical health at 91 and occupies himself with reading, walking, watching his favourite sports and TV shows. Just as my mother is happy to have given up the cooking and cleaning, he’s happy to have someone else taking care of the accounting and the repairs around the home, although he still wants to be included in decisions and we consult with him on everything to do with the house and yard. He’s still the boss!
If you have one of these gentle giants in your life, please take a moment to give him or her a hug right now. These awesome seniors don’t stand out as much as their noisy companions and they don’t get a lot of attention when they are around their higher-maintenance partners, but they still deserve, need and yearn for the brightness of your smile and your love shining fully on them for a long, healing moment of connection.
It’s what we all need. Spread the love.
“I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”
– Francis Bacon
*I’m learning that “letting go” is all a part of a beautiful end-of-life process, if you can recognize it and act on it. More on that later, maybe.