Swimming Upstream

It’s been one year since I featured my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s (read Happy Birthday, Dad!), and I’m pleased to report that on the day of his 94th birthday…

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…he continues his fight against inevitable debility. In fact, it appears that he is more fit than the year before.

Last year, Dad’s sedentary existence and subsequent lack of stamina was draining his psyche and physical condition. It was becoming apparent that the Use-It-or-Lose-It paradigm was taking over, but fortunately, Dad’s vigilance prevailed.

There was no magic pill or panacea to persuade him. Instead, it was his will to keep moving that helped him battle his personal perfect storm–assisted by diet and exercise.

One year ago, I found myself enabling Dad’s Clean-Your-Plate appetite by repeatedly up-sizing his wardrobe to accommodate his ballooning waistline. Unbeknownst to me, the Memory Care staff had endorsed an unwritten and unspoken Snack and Dessert Proclamation:

 If a 90-year-old man wants a cookie, let him eat one.

But Dad would eat two…or more. He was growing sideways effortlessly with reckless abandon. Belts and elastic waistbands had yielded to suspenders. At 5 feet-2 inches, Dad was tipping the scales at 220 pounds, and it was impacting his ability to balance and breathe without wheezing.

And so I returned him to his love of swimming–his preferred sport for fitness. Growing up, I recalled his need to visit the “Y” religiously every Wednesday to swim laps, take a schvitz and a enjoy a rub-down to blow off the steam of life’s hard-boiled expectations.

And while there was no illusion of recapturing the pleasure of Dad’s “Y” Wednesdays or restoring Dad’s forever-lost cognitive functioning, I anticipated his muscle memory might still respond to water therapy.

I was introduced to Patrick, a licensed physical therapist who was willing to accompany Dad into the pool, and work with him twice a week. After a short period of time, the almost-immediate payoff of sounder sleep, noticeable weight loss, and increased energy and awareness supported my vision of Dad swimming every other day, three times a week.



To date, many of Dad’s vital signs continue to improve. His blood pressure has dropped. He eats less and exercises more, which has resulted in 30 pounds of weight loss in 4 months.

Radio Man

Nevertheless, Dad continues to lose ground to his dementia demons. Steady bouts of “nobody home” syndrome are occasionally interrupted by scattered moments of recognition, and immediately replaced by confusion and silence. 

Struggling for the right words almost always results in stuttering followed by resignation. Lingering name-to-face recognition has been replaced by nuanced sweetheart or honey familiarity. Prompting with closed questions works some of the time, but for the most part, Dad has sunk into an eternal state of bliss that many around him find soothing and reassuring. 

Could his passivity be a cover for his acquiescence? Maybe, but I’m not really sure if it makes a difference or even matters.

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Because whether Dad realizes it or not, the victory of survival is always worthy of a celebration.

Becoming My Parents

Hiking along New Jersey State and County Park trails the day after Thanksgiving made a lot of sense to Leah, who orchestrated our first return to New Jersey since moving to St. Augustine five months ago. She promised a whirlwind week and a-half of personal appointments and commitments packed with a variety of doctors, friends and family members, all laced with an emphasis on over-eating.

And so, during the course of our visit, as advertised, our food-centric itinerary always included a meal punctuated by scintillating table conversation on family history and folklore–touching on recipes, obituaries, and kin outcasts, with politics and religion occasionally creeping into the dialogue.

But mostly, everybody seemed to be preoccupied with their health. And God help the person who would innocently ask, “So, how are you feeling?” Because this question would open the floodgates for respondents to freely reassign their HIPAA proxy on the spot so they could casually discuss their current condition down to the last agonizing ache and pain, notwithstanding the severity surrounding their prognosis and course(s) of treatments, always followed by a couple of random doctor-horror stories.

It seemed like everyone had a health-related story to tell–whether it was about themselves or someone they knew–not unlike my parents and their friends, who would gather at holiday occasions to compare notes about their medication intake. It was uncanny that the of crux of nearly all of our relationships was now firmly rooted in our faded glory and eventual demise.

Any outsider, after eavesdropping on any of our sessions of non-stop kvetching might be surprised to learn that we are still breathing and have more than one day to live.

And so, it was predictably refreshing to carve out some time to clear our ears of prescription patter, and find an activity that combined friendship and calorie burning. Of course, our opportunity to hike was completely weather-dependent, considering the prior Nor’easter and the Arctic chill that had settled on the Atlantic states.

Like many Northern transplants to Florida, Leah and I had become preoccupied with weather-watching, so we might bask in the warm glow of knowing that we had finally escaped the unfriendly winters by relocating to St. Augustine. But now that we were back in Jersey, it was time to face the hard cold facts of winter; Ramapo Valley Reservation (NYNJTC_RamapoValleyCountyReservationMap-2017) was 18°F at the Reservation trailhead, and expecting to peak at 23°F by the afternoon.

MacMillan Reservoir was partially frozen and dreary…

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with the exception of distant water reflections.

frozen reflection

Trails were camouflaged… 

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by crispy fallen leaves–densely packed and slippery–despite the assortment of Skittles-colored trail blazes nailed to forest saplings.

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Brooks were running fast and high…

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making each water-crossing challenging and hazardous.

We continued our four-hour excursion with the winds picking up across Campgaw Mountain.

panorama looking east

And it became clear to me that marching through the New Jersey woodlands was not the best birthday present I could have given myself. The cold had already taken its toll on Arlene’s arthritic fingers. Leah, who had recently succumbed to lower back pain and acute Achilles tendonitis was now complaining about her knees.

My knees were also aching from sliding down one too many slippery slopes. Even Doug, the youngest of all of us by at least eleven years had to admit that his right knee was locking up occasionally. The ladies cut their hike short, taking a quick detour to the parking lot, but Doug and I wore our intrepid hats. We continued to the feature waterfall along the Brookside Trail with few delays or complaints…

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giving us bragging rights to a 7.5 mile accomplishment,

frosty rocks

and leaving me more than ready for my true birthday present to myself: a one-hour Swedish massage at a local day spa, if only to rub my aches and pains away for another day.