Dealing With Dementia

One year ago, my father-in-law, age 84, was living on his own, driving, in charge of his own finances, and pretty much his life. After two bouts of pneumonia last spring, things changed quickly.

The family felt it best that we think of some long term plans, the first of which involved him moving into our house. Since he is the nicest, most pleasant man in the world, he was easy to have at home. But, after several months, we really wanted him to be involved in activities of any sort, which was hard to do with both my wife and me working. He was lonely during the day. Plus, his many physical complaints were difficult for us to evaluate as to when to seek care for him.

Because his mental abilities seemed to be getting worse, we had him take both a cognitive functional ability assessment and a cognitive driving test. He failed both, which did not surprise us. We feared for him driving, his computer use, online banking, and being responsible for taking his many medications.

Since our goal was to have him involved more, we thought of some sort of retirement home. My wife and I took a day off and visited a dozen facilities in the area. We finally decided on one, and he moved in last October. For the most part, he was doing well. We would have liked it if he were more involved in the several activities offered during the week, but he was safe, well fed, and had a nursing staff in charge of his medications. We talked to him every day and usually saw him several times each week.

But as his dementia worsened, he had a harder time remembering things, events, and people. He was obsessed with his health and felt like he needed to see the doctor almost every day. This often meant several phone calls a day, which my wife handled by patiently explaining his health to him. On the other hand, we were very happy he was not obsessed with any bodily functions, which is often the case.

Our worse fears became reality. Since he called every day saying he needed to go to the doctor or hospital, on our niece’s wedding day in northern Minnesota he called at 5:00 am to tell us his stomach hurt and that he needed to see a doctor. So we thought ‘same story, different day’. But it turned out that he was in severe pain, and ended up going to the hospital to be evaluated. His diagnosis was dehydration and constipation, not exactly life threatening, but it certainly did put a kink his day, as he missed the wedding and reception.

Last week my wife found this poem that is very appropriate:

Do not ask me to remember,
Don’t try to make me understand,
Let me rest and know you’re with me,
Kiss my cheek and hold my hand.
I’m confused beyond your concept,
I am sad and sick and lost.
All I know is that I need you
To be with me at all cost.
Do not lose your patience with me,
Do not scold or curse or cry.
I can’t help the way I’m acting,
Can’t be different though I try.
Just remember that I need you,
That the best of me is gone,
Please don’t fail to stand beside me,
Love me ’til my life is done.
– Owen Darnell

Best advice? Be patient!

On the advice of someone who works with patients who have dementia, we asked ourselves the question, “How old is Dad in his memory?” Well, he was probably 50 – 60 years old. So when he woke believing he was 50-60 years old and was in fact stuck in his 84-year-old body with its medical issues, he was horrified, wondered why he felt so awful and sure that he needed to see a doctor right then. Something terrible must have been going on because he had never felt that way before. Well, he didn’t at 50 – 60 years of age! He doesn’t remember that his medical issues have been ongoing for 15-20 years or so.

Yes, this is my blog post, but I asked my wife to assist me in writing it, as she did on January 28. Then two days later this dear man passed quietly in his sleep. Yes, on some level we are relieved, as he is no longer afraid. Do we not all wish to die peacefully? But he will be sorely missed as well. He epitomized a man from the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’; born to a family in Smalltown USA, worked the family business while young, then served first this country, and then his family. He was a kind and gentle man that could no longer do any new tasks, but the weekend before he died kicked my butt playing pool. I was honored to know him for the past 35 years of my marriage.

I would be remiss as a reference assistant if I didn’t tell you that the library has all sorts of reference materials dealing with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and grieving to assist both families and caregivers. Need help? Just ask at Information & Reference.

  1. Bill
    Bill says:

    Wonderfully stated Charlie and Vonnie. Hope it helps other deal with helping their struggling loved ones.

    Miss you very much Dad.



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