Friday, September 9, 2011

Fading from Gray to Black

My wife is witnessing the gradual but steady decline in her father’s mental capabilities. She often refers to herself as the “Social Worker for Her Family” and such is true. She helps her sisters, her children and now her father who cared for her all those years.

Her father lost his car in the inevitable car accident earlier this summer. It is a relief that no one was injured. Any illusions about him continuing to drive were hauled away along with the crunched vehicle. But more and more is being heaped on her shoulders as friends and family call to speak with her about their concerns following their interactions with her father.

The anecdotes now come in daily; he doesn’t remember the names of his fellow staff from the Horticulture department when they meet for their monthly coffee. He recognized a photo as being his nephew, but he couldn’t remember the boy’s name. Memories of events only months ago he places instead decades back in history. She wonders on what day it will be that he will take his daily walk and forgets how to find his way back home. These weigh on my wife; loving daughter, watching her father sink ever deeper into a murky mental abyss.

Her choices are none; she can only keep on and try to keep up. Likely soon she will take over writing his bills as she cannot find any remote semblance of order in his random piles of paper and clutter. She drives him to his appointments and the few social events he can manage; the Hort department meeting, no longer on campus, might as well be on the moon now as far as her father knows. She takes him there but he doesn’t know where he is.

He continues to work in his yard, push mower and hand held hedge clippers. Keeping the yard up is his measure of his independence. Plants he gathered on collection expeditions from all over the globe now planed in his yard he for which he no longer knows their names. The ladders have been taken away as a precaution.

I am of even less help to my wife; all I can do is watch. We bring her father over for dinner once a week where he endlessly repeats the stories of his research at the university and his experiences during WWII. I have heard them all so many times; but all I can do is nod and hope he doesn’t notice that I have long since stopped listening.

“I’ve lived too long”, he remarked to his daughter recently – a tacit acceptance of his realization that his brain is declining more rapidly than his body. All we can do is watch as the inevitable unfolds and prepare what we can; what he will allow. All that he was is in the past; he has no future – and sadly, he knows this as well.

22 comments:

Paul said...

Robert, Seneca's " Letters From a Stoic" might be worth reading. Seneca addresses issues that are confronting you all...

Paul said...

Trad Seneca's "Letters From a Stoic"...It offers solace in this regard Robert...

Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living said...

A very well-written post that made me think of my mother-in-law. She does not have Alzheimers, and lives in an over 55, residential community. She also repeats the same childhood stories over and over, and all I can say is I hope I never do that. Conversation is lacking and unless we talk about the Kennedy's or the Catholic church, there is nothing to talk about. I feel sorry for my husband.

Rain said...

Extreme old age is tough and add to it senility and it's even harder for him and everybody. I assume his doctor has already been trying the drugs that supposedly help with Alzheimer, slowing the process. One of my friends had her mother in a Corvallis facility that cared for the senility. If your wife wants to talk to her, I am sure she would be happy to discuss it with her. It's a tough road is all I can say and any of us could end up there. When a child must take over the responsibility of the adult in the relationship, that makes it even harder and that comes to many offspring. :(

Robert the Skeptic said...

Paul Thanks, I'll look it up.

Gutsy A buddy did some gerontology case work; he told me that it is common for older people to talk about their past because that is where their life meaning came from. We talk about the future, our plans and aspirations. But for older folks they have no future, or at least, don't want to think about it.

Rain We've visited three assisted living facilities in town, even took Mel to one of them for lunch. He's not yet ready for that level of care. But he accepted the loss of his driving, we are hoping he will accept when he is unable to maintain his home (yard, anyway). The clock is ticking and he isn't going to get better. It's just so hard on my wife.

secret agent woman said...

Watching the same with my own father - it's very hard.

DJan said...

This is so sad, Robert. I just don't know what to say, except that there is an upside to your parents never living long enough to have dementia. Both of mine died in their sixties, never had a chance to get really old.

Jayne said...

Robert, sad indeed. But he's so very fortunate he has both you and his daughter to help him through this phase of his life. You're kind to be there, and to nod.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent It is, there are no soothing words.

DJan My parents as well died in their early 60's of cancer. They didn't even live long enough to collect Social Security. Cancer is a cruel disease.

Jayne Everything we have heard about all forms of dementia is that the best thing to do is make their lives as pleasant as possible.

Paul said...

Stay strong Robert...I wish that I had more solace to offer you friend...

Cognitive Dissenter said...

My daughter works in a neurology clinic where they specialize in treating patients with ALS. It is the opposite situation from Alzheimers and I'm not sure which is more cruel, frankly. Neither is a kind option. ALS usually progresses rapidly from diagnosis as the body deteriorates but the mind stays sharp. Alzheimers ... so hard to watch a loved one lose himself.

My heart goes out to you and your good wife, Robert.

John Myste said...

As I almost said, before I lost the comment, I never know how to comfort people, and I always want to. It is really hard to reach someone is a place of pain. You can suffer on their behalf, because you sympathize, but you cannot truly empathize.

Ella Wilcox almost said what I could not articulate, but just fell short:

There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.


I thought that hit the nail on the head for years. However, it does not. Ella explained the problem of one in sorrow, needing company as a form of comfort. The sorrowful cannot receive guests. Sorrow is a very personal thing. While true, this is not the problem the one trying to share in the sorrow has. It sounds harsh, but the one who wishes to participate, but can only share from a distance, has his own problem: the frustration of wanting to be there for someone fully, to truly share in their agony in a brotherly way, and realizing that humans are not built in such a way to make this possible.

In Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry expressed it better than I ever could, and finally figured out a way to communicate the concept, which is not elaborate, but beautiful in its simplicity.

C'est tellement mystérieux, le payes des larmes!

To loosely translate: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”

Losing complexity takes something away, but it can also bring something back. I know that does not solve the problem, but perhaps there is a small desirable something hidden in the horror of it all.

alwaysinthebackrow said...

How difficult it must be for him to have some sense of what he is losing. If he didn't know, it would be bad, but this way seems so cruel.
You are a good husband and father-in-law. Your wife needs your shoulder next to her and your arms around her. You are doing good, Robert.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter I think of the ultimate cruelty of ALS when I see Stephen Hawking - that brilliant brilliant mind trapped in a completely useless body. Indeed, which scenario is worse. Those who have died of heart attack, stroke or accident are almost viewed with having a merciful end.

John Reading your words I believe are the sentiments Mel expressed when he admitted that he "...has lived too long". We live in a culture where we beleeve it is our god-given right to have pleasure, happiness and fulfillment be the major component of our existence. Yet these really just punctuate our lives, mostly we toil and deal with various levels of pain. Buddhism seems to me one thought process which accepts these trials and fate as part of life. Then at some point, it's over.

BackRow It is particularly sad in that, as a former university professor and researcher, his mind has been his stock-and-trade, his identity comes entirely from his intellect. That is what he is losing so rapidly and he knows it and is trying to accept it graciously.

TechnoBabe said...

Some people live many years with a clear brain. My mother is 90 and she is sharp as a tack. Her body is not healthy. Never has been. The sad part about this post is your wife's belief she is the social worker for her family. What a burden.

Paul said...

I take the first step
And follow it on the path
And come to the gate.

Robert the Skeptic said...

TechnoBabe Nancy has the capabilities to do what she does and does not shrink from her responsibility. She is a remarkable woman indeed.

Murr Brewster said...

I have too much to say about this. Give your wife a hug from me.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Murr I take that responsibility very seriously and provide her with hugs on a regular basis.

Antares Cryptos said...

Sad reality of mortality and telomeres.

Sorry to hear that.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

Wow. I feel for your wife, And I am somewhat in the same shoes with my mom. I know how she feels, all the heavy weight on her shoulders.

Kerry O'Gorman said...

I read this post and then thought about the link you mentioned re: my photos on the abandoned power plant via Matylinn Kelly...I see the sadness as well as the grandeur in aging things of all sorts. Haunting and with so many stories to tell. Sometimes these stories are remembered and repeated but well worth documenting. Thanks for this bit of writing.