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.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

After nine months of driving 32,000 miles and covering 102 destinations, Leah and I arrived in time to celebrate Dad’s 93rd birthday at MorseLife Memory Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. It had been ten months since I had last seen Dad, and I was determined to be there to mark Dad’s latest milestone.

But things did not go originally as planned. In my mind, Dad had remembered the dozens of phone calls we shared prior to my arrival, with me always reminding him of our anticipated plans for our visit: how Leah and I would pick him up and treat him to dinner at a local Chinese restaurant–something he hadn’t tasted since relocating to a Kosher assisted-living residence over two years ago.

Instead, we found Dad sitting in his lounge chair in his room, with a nebulizer mask around his face. His eyes were shut and he was still, as the whir of the machine misted steroids into his lungs. I glanced at his right hand to examine the damage the nurse had called to tell me about while we were enroute.

His paper-thin, leopard-spotted skin was loosely wrapped in gauze to protect a tear above the web of his thumb–the damage caused by a tumble after losing his balance while pushing himself out of his chair during a late morning activity.

I removed his omnipresent cap and kissed the crown of his bald head.

“Happy Birthday, Dad!” I shouted, so he could better hear me without the benefit of his hearing aids, out for repair. He opened his eyes, and forced a smile through the mask.

We allowed time for his aide to untether him and prep him for his big night out.

Earlier in the day, there had been a small birthday celebration after lunch, with cupcakes for all the residents on his floor. Although he couldn’t recall the sing-along, he vaguely remembered the cupcakes, which were finger-lickin’ good.

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It seems that one of the side effects of bottomless home-cooking and easy-living at MorseLife has been a steady rise in Dad’s weight–from 185 pounds upon admission, to 220 pounds, currently–accounting for four complete wardrobe changes within the past 18 months.

“Today’s your birthday, Dad. Do you remember me telling you that I was taking you out for your birthday?” I asked.

My question was met with a shoulder shrug.

Trying again, “Do you know how old you are today?”

“Not really,” he replied weakly.

“Today, you’re 93!” I announced animatedly.

“Oh, yeah?” Dad responded unenthusiastically.

“Do you remember your birth date…the year you were born?” I attempted.

“Um, 19……23?” he answered cautiously.

“Very close,” I encouraged. “It was 1924! That was a long time ago!”

“Okay,” Dad replied, nonplussed.

After desperately trying to pull his wounded hand through the sleeve of his windbreaker without causing him to wince in pain, we knew our plans were doomed. Even if we were lucky enough to secure his outerwear, I was clueless how I would usher Dad into the front seat of our F-150 without the assistance of a forklift sheathed in kid gloves.

I turned to Leah. “This is never gonna work. We need a Plan B!”

“I agree,” Leah intoned.

It was just after 6pm, and the other residents were nearly finished in the dining room, so maintaining Dad’s schedule was fast becoming our newest obstacle.

Fortunately, the residence maintains a private dining room for family occasions, so I went in search of Chinese take-out food within the West Palm area, while Leah sat with Dad.

By 6:30pm, we were unpacking cartons of fried rice, spring rolls, chicken satay and sesame beef on paper plates to preserve the integrity of the facility’s dietary laws, albeit, still feeling somewhat guilty for turning Dad a trifle treyf.

But it was hard to argue with Dad’s reaction. He was enjoying himself.

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Surprisingly, he had given up on tableware, and surrendered to his hunger by using his hands. Unlike spring rolls and satay, I never thought of fried rice and sesame beef as finger food, but to Dad, it all looked the same, and tasted like more.

After cleaning up, we posed for pictures with the Birthday Boy,

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Dad and Leah (2)

and wondered how much of Dad’s party would be remembered by tomorrow. We made him swear an oath–that he would never tell that we infiltrated a Kosher facility with non-Kosher food.

And sadly, he never will.