Monday, December 15, 2014
Longing for Yesteryear
When was your yesteryear?
Was it several years ago, when your children were younger? Was it a couple of decades ago, when you graduated college, or got married? Was it half a century ago, when the world seemed to be a far simpler place?
My yesteryear was two months ago, back when my father's dementia was merely stressful. My yesteryear is the beginning of November, when Dad could still recognize me as his eldest son.
Before he began accusing me of being evil. Of being Satan.
My yesteryear is even before he began to believe I was going to kill him.
Starting on Thursday evening, and every night since then, Dad has prayed out loud to God for peace as he prepared for me to murder him. Every evening, in what is called "sundowning" (the process in which dementia patients react in disturbing ways to nightfall), Dad now lives in profound fear. Fear of Mom, fear of me, and fear of what he thinks we're going to do to him.
He shakes in agony, his voice cracks, he sobs without tears. He whispers disbelief at how his life is about to be stolen from him. He prays to God defiantly so I can hear that however I kill him, as he truly expects, I'll know I can't kill his spirit.
You don't see any of this on the Alzheimer websites. You see lots of information about walking with Alzheimer patients through their earliest memories, but there's nothing about how to handle a loved one who believes you're about to murder them in cold blood.
My yesteryear is the time - about three weeks ago - before Mom began getting so afraid of Dad, and what he might do to himself and us, that she began calling 911. She's called them three times now, and each time, the police come out and quietly try to diffuse our situation. The first two times, it worked: Dad calmed down and his fears subsided. Saturday night, however, he began arguing with the cops, and I finally encouraged them to leave, since no progress was being made.
Yesterday afternoon, we experienced the earliest onset of Dad's sundowning, with the questions and fear beginning at about 5:00. He'd scowl at Mom, asking for her identity. He'd glare at me, disbelieving anything I told him. I found one of his CDs of hymn music and played it, watching his face sink into his hands, as if in prayer. Mom and I looked at each other, smiling to see him asking God for peace in the midst of his confusion.
Then he raised his head and looked defiantly at both of us. He declared that he was ready for whatever harm we were about to inflict upon him. We then realized he'd been praying for the faith and courage to face his imminent death.
Mom choked back tears.
I silently chided myself for being so gullible as to hope a simple thing like playing soothing music could intercept his worsening dementia.
My yesteryear was when Dad merely forgot that his sister no longer lives in Brooklyn, where they had grown up. Every time they spoke on the phone, Dad would ask her three or four times where she lived, since the experiences she told him about her day had nothing to do with the old neighborhood. Last night, for the first time, he angrily told her she was lying to him, and tried to hang up the phone. Mom grabbed the receiver from him and commiserated with my aunt over what had just happened. Dad had turned on his own sister, the last person alive who can relate to their family's childhood experiences.
My yesteryear was an almost unbelievable one or two inches ago, back around the beginning of November, when I couldn't wear several old, old pairs of denim jeans. I fit comfortably into them now, thanks to all the weight I've suddenly lost. Because of my constant anxiety, my appetite has shriveled up, and so has my waistline. I'm still hungry, but I can barely brace myself for whatever new hell we're going to face each evening with Dad's condition.
My yesteryear was when Dad refused to go to church because he didn't want anybody to see that he needed to use a cane. On Sunday mornings, after breakfast and before the time he and Mom usually left for their church, he'd feign an illness, such as being too tired or dizzy. But then, as soon as I announced that Mom had left for church alone, suddenly he was chipper and professing that he felt fine.
My yesteryear was when Dad fought with Mom and me for trying to help him take a shower safely. It could take half an hour to coax him into the bathroom to take a 5-minute shower. And those strategically-placed handrails Mom paid some contractor a ridiculous amount of money to install in their bathroom? He would disdainfully use them only after I'd repeatedly remind him of their obvious presence.
My yesteryear was back when Dad didn't fear me as his potential killer; he merely considered me the bad guy in our household; the person upon whom most of his anger was directed. Mom and I had learned that because of the confusion and anxiety dementia patients experience, they tend to direct their resulting anger towards one of their caregivers. Usually, that unfortunate target of their anger is their spouse. Yet in our case, since I'm living at home with them, as the overweight, underemployed son, I caught most of Dad's vitriol. And that was okay, since it usually spared Mom from even higher levels of stress.
But those days appear to be over, and long gone. When sundowning begins, both Mom and I are equal-opportunity targets for his scorn, vitriol, and outright ugliness. Some experts say we should nurture Dad's childhood memories and walk through his version of reality with him, validating his humanity despite his confusion. Unfortunately for us, however, Dad's childhood was irreparably scarred by an alcoholic father. There is little in his earliest memories that is good. Years ago, during one of his extremely infrequent mentions of his father, Dad told us that the day he came home from work to find his father dead in their apartment's foyer, there was such profound relief in his family, it took a while before anybody figured they should call somebody to remove the body.
Fortunately for us, there's an elder at Mom and Dad's church who has willingly come over on each of these past few nights and helped to calm Dad down. This elder, Ron, has a remarkable knack for chatting through topics to find nuggets of relevance that can engage the person with whom he's talking. With Dad, his only really good childhood memories involve watching Dodgers baseball games at Ebbets Field, and Ron, having grown up as an improbable Dodgers fan himself, despite being raised in rural Texas, can talk to him about the old players.
In my yesteryear, Mom once had me research and print off some information on the old Dodgers and their legendary players, but Dad read just a couple of sentences of it and then filed it someplace. We haven't seen it since.
Ron is an engineer. He was also military pilot, and has worked in several different industries, so he's accrued a broad and diverse history from which he can draw stories and anecdotes that touch on Dad's history in the military and employment in the concrete construction business. Meanwhile, the life histories Mom and I each have are inextricably tied into Dad's. And since he doesn't know who we are, he doesn't trust us when we talk - especially about experiences it's apparent he should remember along with us. Mom and I try to talk with Dad like Ron does, but invariably, Dad becomes suspicious, and before long, he's denying what we're saying, and getting agitated. I suspect that Mom and I are too close to him, even though he can't remember why we're close. People like Ron are removed from his life just far enough so that there's a certain casualness to their relationship.
Chalk it up to one of the difficult ironies of dementia. Dad would cheerfully chat away with telemarketers and willingly offer up his credit card information if we let him. Yet he's fearful of us. He convinces himself I'm going to murder him, yet he'd shuffle out the front door, off to who knows where in the black of night, if we'd let him. He enthusiastically welcomes Ron into his reality, but he bitterly accuses Mom and me of holding him hostage.
In my yesteryear, I wasn't a hostage-holder. I wasn't Satan. I wasn't about to murder my precious Dad.
I want my yesteryear back, and everything it stood for.
In God's holy providence, however, even today's misery will soon become a yesteryear for which I'll likely pine as we descend ever lower into this netherworld called Alzheimer's.
Update - Sure enough; it's 4:09pm on Monday, and Mom and are getting ready to take Dad to the hospital, where his neurologist has arranged for him to be admitted before his inevitable placement into a nursing home. As you might imagine, this is very hard. Very. Hard.