In the photo, a slim, dark-haired young man gives the photographer a mildly amused smile while a young woman in a light coat beams up at him. I show this black and white photo from about 1940 to my father and explain, “Look, here you are with your sister Pat.” Dad reaches out a bony arm from his nursing home bed for the photo and pulls it close to his face. He’s wearing his glasses, so I figure he can see it at least somewhat okay; he’s not squinting. His pale face remains expressionless. He asks, “What are their names?” And so it goes through all the photos in the small album.
That Dad does not recognize past scenes is not a surprise. That he can’t identify himself in a photo or remember his own name is new. He does still know which room in the Alzheimer’s wing I should steer his wheelchair into. I used to think he recognized his name on the name plate by his door. And for his first eight months there, he did know his name. Now I wonder if he recognizes his Senior Olympics ribbon we tucked behind his name plate. Or maybe, like a blind person, he just senses about how far down the hall his room is, or its distance from the lunch tables. Who knows?
* * *
Is it just my imagination, or is the pool I’m swimming in changing shapes? In my ninth year of swimming here in Elder-Care Park, my laps certainly feel much longer. And am I swimming farther now to grab sides of the pool to rest? Has the narrow, straight-edged pool I first dove into swelled into an amorphous, bulging blob, lap lanes now fuzzy?
Though my parents are nine years older since Dad’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I feel 15 years older. That might be fatigue talking. My six “bonus” years have happened just since last April. That’s when the hospital wouldn’t release Dad back home to the sole care of his 90-year-old wife; they would release him only to a nursing home. You might think when Mom’s grocery lists for me went from Milk of Magnesia, toe separators, bread, latex gloves (lge), bed pad (waterproof), to nonemergency items like cole slaw (1/4 lb.), grapes (if on sale), and gala apple (1), my support role would have eased up. Yes, grocery shopping is less painful now, but other feelings have surfaced.
Seeing my father helpless and alone in a nursing home stirs up the pool in Elder-Care Park and straps weights to my wrists and ankles. When my role was grocery shopping and odds and ends, my laps were energetic butterfly strokes. Helplessly watching Dad’s dramatic decline slows me to a crawl. It breaks my heart and squeezes my lungs—not ideal conditions when swimming an indefinite marathon in an infinity pool.
Though Dad napped a lot in his and Mom’s home, he was eager to putter, work jigsaw puzzles, and play his favorite music on cassette-tape anthologies he’d recorded in more organized years. Eventually, he couldn’t make sense of the tape player’s Play button or Volume dial, but he smiled sublimely while tapping his feet to eclectic mixes of Fleetwood Mac and Keely Smith, Jimmy Dorsey and Dire Straits. We were more than happy to operate the machine to see him so happy. And no matter how many words and functions and memories Dad forgot, he always remembered how to find the cookie jar.
To see my father’s happy, homey little world reduced to one small, lonely room surrounded by strangers—well, it’s crushing. Since then, everyone in our family has been heartbroken for him. We explored other options but finally had to admit he needs more care than we can provide. Nine months later, sorrow still makes swallowing hard. Hoping Dad doesn’t feel abandoned or unloved haunts us. We love him so much. And love is what we try to convey in every visit to the nursing home. We rejoice in wide-awake-smiling-conversational visits and sob after hollow-eyed-weak-voiced visits. The differences in his cognition levels may seem random, but they are not. As 2011 progressed, Dad’s abilities regressed. Alzheimer’s tightens its death grip on yet another precious person.
Yet I thank God for oh so many aspects of Elder-Care Park. One is that my mother has gotten a respite from her tireless eight-year, 24/7 care of her husband. Another is that as her physical health declines, she can still enjoy her home and simple pleasures. My husband has cooked a lot of yummy dinners for us to eat on days I come home from being with my parents, and two generations of our family have rallied to help our parents/grandparents any way we can. Also, new family dynamics are developing. I look forward to seeing them unfold. Weeping willows in Elder-Care Park may not be as lush as orchids overhanging a Hawaiian beach. Swimming laps may not be as thrilling as surfing. But God is in the park!
Besides thankfulness, I have four, no five, joys in all this.
Joy 1: God is the life raft that floats close to me when a new wave of emotion washes over me. Sometimes I swim steady laps for days in calm waters—taking Mom meals, buying her groceries, visiting Dad, thinking up little activities to brighten Dad’s day and stimulate his diminishing brain cells, driving them both to doctor appointments, communicating Elder-Care-Park news to out-of-state siblings. Then suddenly, life pelts my pool with stones like these:
· First seeing oxygen tubes on my father’s face
· Aching for the loneliness I see in his hollow eyes that brighten when we arrive and fill with quivering tears when we leave
· Remembering Dad and Mom crying together last April when he asked her, “What’s going to become of us?”
· Feeling frustrated by and sometimes angry at institutional rules
· Feeling completely, utterly helpless as I watch Alzheimer’s and age steal what’s left of my once-vigorous parents
· Even sadness that Dad’s desserts are now bowls of canned fruit, not his favorite—chocolate chip cookies
· Disappointment that Dad slept, curled up on his bed, oxygen tank humming air into his nose, his mouth sputtering “puh,” through his 90th birthday party
· Lately, new fears for my mom’s frailty
My heavenly Father knows when such triggers are too much for me, I won’t be able to glide to a gutter along the pool’s edge to process emotions. His raft is at my side in a heartbeat. Thanks to God’s grace and mercies, the ripples pulsing outward from these stones are just eddies of emotion, not tsunamis of suffering.
And you know what else? This lifesaving raft has a cup holder where God collects all my tears. I wish I could neatly articulate my emotions since I’ve been in Elder-Care Park, but I can’t. I sometimes wish I knew which stages of grief I am in at any given time. I’d really like to make sense of it all. But it’s pretty much all I can do to fling an arm over the raft, give my roiled-up feelings to my heavenly Father, and rest in the truth that the Holy Spirit prays for me with groans too deep for words.
Joy 2: Even as my arms burn with fatigue, our Lord strengthens them for one more lap, one more visit, one more letter to the nursing home administrator, one more grocery list. I’m learning to laugh about my own forgetfulness: Do we need sweet potatoes? Was the sweet potato I bought recently for my mom or for us? Oh well, if it was for us, I’ll just buy another, no big deal. I no longer care so much about details. I just have to trust the Lord to remind me if I forget an important one. Also, God’s coming alongside me deepens my understanding of biblical concepts like sacrifice of praise, thank offerings, praying without ceasing, dwelling on what’s excellent and praiseworthy, and new mercies every morning.
Joy 3: God expands my heart, exercises lung muscles, and teaches me to number my days aright. Living in survival mode glues frequent quiet times with the Lord onto my calendar pages. One engages in much less casual bible reading when one is desperate. Spiritual lessons abound. Many days I have only five loaves and two fishes, which frankly, I’d prefer to put on my own plate. In the lap pool at Elder-Care Park, God drills me in giving out of my poverty. I have to be much more intentional about saving energy for my husband and activities that refresh me. Gradually letting go of my parents, I sense some new freedoms and adjusted priorities.
Joy 4: Two years ago on my father’s 88th birthday, he asked Jesus to forgive his sins, come into his heart now, and take him to heaven when he dies. Whoohoo! Next party I have with Dad, he’ll jitterbug over to the tape player, press Play, and we’ll make up a glorious, giddy new dance to the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Joy 5: I get to spend time with my parents that I wouldn’t have if they were both still hale and hearty. My parents are among the most generous people in the world. They gave me so much. The joy of giving back, of serving them, is more than I could have asked or imagined. But just their companionship is priceless. I love sitting at their kitchen table with Mom to share mundane details of our lives. She’s a news junkie, fascinating and well-informed. And in an election year—whoa, look out. She’ll be sharp. I love sitting at Dad’s bedside to page through a photo album or book of animal photos and to play his favorite songs for him. Plus, these years with my parents allow me to tell them how much they mean to me.
Okay, I selfishly admit to Joy 5a, which may be more peacock pleasure than true joy. I am a major techno-weenie by anyone’s standards, except my mother’s. Though she’s far outpaced me in conducting life’s business on the Internet, she still needs a little tutoring now and then. Setting up a Microsoft Word table or Excel spreadsheet for Mom is about the only time I feel smart sitting at a computer.
Elder-Care Park is this season of my life. I have no idea what season God might ordain next for me. Whatever it is, I know His plan, purposes, and presence will be in the new season, too, whenever it comes. Meanwhile, I’m just here swimming and resting, swimming and resting, which is a bit like living in the moment. Modern philosophers urge, “Live in the moment,” but this is certainly not a new concept. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow. Isaiah 43:18, 19 also says not to dwell on the past; rather to see the new thing God is doing now. Funny … All a late-stage Alzheimer’s patient has is the moment. Though my dad has no idea how his example helps me grasp this biblical concept, it is at my father’s bedside where I most strongly experience God-designed, living-in-the-moment peace.