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.
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.