The Gift

Much has changed in the past two years. Counting down birthdays for my father has become a nervous inevitability for our family as he ages and succumbs to a numbing dementia that continues to rob him of the vitality he enjoyed before entering MorseLife Memory Center four years ago.

Today, Dad is 95 and unaware of everything in his life that has brought him to this grand occasion. Occasionally, he dazzles us with fleeting flashes of familiarity, like an imprinted song lyric, or he chuckles at a joke. Otherwise, we are left to personify his thoughts and feelings.

Even now, we long for the not-so-old days when frustrating bouts of stuttering and looping sentences would trail into nothingness as he attempted to express himself. At the very least, it was a short time of momentary lucidity and coherence.

My father is a man of very few words, and even fewer deeds. He restlessly idles in a wheelchair for most of the day, waiting for more time. But time is not on his side. One year ago, Dad was exercising in the facility swimming pool with assistance (see Happy Birthday, Dad!), however a viral infection compromised his balance, and eventually incapacitated him. Now his withered legs will no longer support him.

While he still manages to feed himself, his prepared meals are entirely liquid-based and served in a cup, as he has forgotten how to chew and swallow. We made this discovery seven months ago, after visiting during mealtime, and watched Dad feed himself a forkful of solid food, only to sweep his mouth with a forefinger to rid his cheeks of masticated goo.

Whenever family gathers, we are always determined to remind him of who we are and what our significant relationship is to him. With resignation, we still ask the same questions that we know all too well remain unanswerable–like, “Dad, can you tell me the names of your children?” And of course, there is only silence and a vacant stare.

While we are ready to concede that this ship has sailed, we somehow embrace the notion that he must certainly know us, but just can’t find a way to verbalize it. As a result, we have accustomed ourselves to asking closed questions which we know will easily elicit a “Yes” or “No” answer. Nevertheless, hospice staff continues to gauge the quality of his life by prompting him.

“Are you comfortable, Carl?” and “Do you need anything, Carl?”

Nevertheless, one bright and shiny catalyst in my father’s life that continues to move him is music. No matter that his eyes are closed, and he appears to be napping. Whenever he hears music, there is always a wagging finger and a tapping toe to mark the beat.

Ongoing research has been conducted with music and the measured response of Alzhemer’s patients. The Mayo Clinic reports…

Research suggests that listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.

MorseLife is a strong proponent of music therapy, and provides music entertainment as part of their daily ritual for residents. For instance, Raoul performs every Friday afternoon before Sabbath services. He and Dad bonded immediately once Raoul noticed Dad’s exuberance during an afternoon music session last year. Taking a short break from his act, he asked Dad what he did in the real world, and Dad answered without hesitation (but falsely) that he was on the radio. The next week, for Dad’s 94th birthday, Raoul presented Dad with a cap forever identifying him as Radio Man.

Radio Man
Dad’s 94th birthday celebration

Despite a collection of a dozen or more caps, Radio Man has become his most cherished possession, and he hardly ever dresses without it.

Not to be outdone, I felt compelled to deliver a gift for Dad’s 95th birthday celebration that would be equally as memorable. But given his present circumstances, what do I give a man who has everything (except his memories) and requires nothing (but his memory)? I gave it a lot of thought and happened upon an idea that required stealth and deception.

Our family gathered in the Memory Center’s private dining room this past Friday to honor Dad with a party cake (for us) and ice cream (for him). To make it a little more special, I presented Dad with a smuggled bottle of Chivas Regal–his go-to booze for most of his adult life, until he was no longer allowed.

Because of MorseLife’s stringent no-alcohol policy, Dad hadn’t tasted hard liquor in over four years, so naturally, I wondered how he’d react. Would he think the heat too harsh? Or would he flatly reject it like he did when he was once offered liquified macaroni and cheese for lunch?

Since there were no objections from my siblings, as they were equally as curious, I poured Dad a finger of Chivas, and we toasted him.

The results were priceless.

I poured him another…and soon after, another. Each time, his reaction was identical.

He had to know that this was a special day!

The floor nurse stopped by to check on our birthday boy. She immediately spotted the open bottle of Chivas on the table and straightened her back with her hands on her hips.

“I hope that Carl isn’t drinking that!” she admonished.

“Absolutely not,” I answered, quickly. “Ask him yourself!”

After she left, I poured him another.

“It’s the last one,” I promised over Leah’s loose objection.

Same result. “Oooh!” “Ahhh!”

We moved our celebration to the common room, where Raoul was already entertaining the residents with his Latin-flavored karaoke. Once Dad was situated, the party started in earnest.

Raoul offered a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and we were there to witness Dad’s glory.

To hear Dad sing was an unexpected gift to us all.

Birthday Suit

Four years ago, when I was scavanging through my father’s belongings–after having moved him to an assisted living memory center–I came across an obsolete, Kodak digital camera (c. 2008) in a vanity dresser drawer.

I removed the mystery SD card to inspect the files, and to my horror/delight, I discovered a photo of my father experimenting with the camera buttons–completely unaware that he had memorialized the scene in a bathroom mirror selfie.

While I have cropped the photo to its least offensive dimensions, it still captures the essence of his self-discovery.

Today is his 95th birthday, and although he is now feeble and for the most part at a loss for words (robbed by Alzheimer’s disease), he still manages to laugh at what he intuits as funny.

And I have little doubt, that if Dad was still with us in body and mind, he would most certainly laugh at his indecent exposure, while practicing with his Kodak in his birthday suit.

 

sunsceen application
after a sunscreen application

Happy Birthday, Dad!

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…

smiles.jpg

…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.

siblings (4)

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…

lake (2)

with the exception of distant water reflections.

frozen reflection

Trails were camouflaged… 

blue trail (2)

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

cut logs

Brooks were running fast and high…

brook flow1 (3)

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…

waterfall

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.