Cruel Thief

By: 
JANE CLARK, WRITERS BLOC

It steals memory, personality and the ability to communicate. The devastation it causes is not painful in the physical sense, but emotionally it takes a slow and agonizing toll.

I know from personal experience what Alzheimer’s can do. For seven and a half years my dad lived in a nursing home, a victim of this debilitating disease. Although “living” is not what I would call it. Existing is a more appropriate word.

My dad was a 30-year employee from Ford Motor Company in Louisville. After he retired he became a member of a senior citizens band and played music at many local senior  centers and nursing homes. He was a talented guitarist and occasionally played the harmonica at the same time using a special holder. 

Daddy remarried after my mom passed away in 1979. His second wife’s health worsened after a few years; but before she passed away, she told members of my family that Daddy was getting very forgetful. Soon after her death, we saw how bad his memory had become.   

We took Daddy to a couple of health care professionals who determined that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. In the beginning, we made every effort to avoid putting him in a nursing home. We hired someone to cook his meals and stay with him during the day, but in the evening he was lonely and confused and would make numerous phone calls to me or my sister and brothers. I decided that it was time to have him come live with me.  

Daddy was okay the first weekend as long as someone was there with him. But we all had jobs and were gone during the day. On Monday after we left for work, Daddy drove back home to Clarksville.  

We realized that it was unsafe for him to drive and that he could no longer live alone. He had become like a child who needed constant attention. After speaking with his doctor, we made the decision to move him to a nursing home.

My sister and her husband picked Daddy up at his home and drove him to the nursing facility. Meanwhile, I was already there signing all the necessary papers. We had made his room as homey as possible with one of his easy chairs, a night stand and other personal belongings. It was an emotional time because we knew he would never be able to leave there. He was 76 years old when he entered the nursing home.      

Daddy was disoriented the first few days, but the staff watched him closely. On my next visit he asked me why he had to be there in that place. I explained that he was getting confused and needed help taking care of himself. I did not tell him he had Alzheimer’s, but on another visit he asked, “I don’t have “Altimers, do I?” He knew what a terrible disease it is and did not want to believe that it was happening to him.

Daddy became more settled at the nursing home after a couple of months. I visited regularly and occasionally took him out to lunch or for a drive in the country. Sometimes I allowed him to come home with me to spend the weekend.    

On the first Thanksgiving after he entered the nursing home, we had our big family dinner at my brother’s home near Corydon. Daddy was there for the day but seemed distant and spoke very little. When we handed him his guitar, however, we were amazed. From somewhere deep within his confused mind, a part of his memory took over, and he played an old familiar tune just as well as he always had. But that was the last time he ever played.

After about a year, Daddy was getting much worse, and I could no longer bring him home for weekend visits. Eventually, I had to stop taking him out to lunch. One day when I was there for a visit, he stood in front of his chair, turning in circles and said, “Tell me what to do.” 

Alzheimer’s was tightening its grip, destroying his mental abilities and the control of his own body. His muscle coordination was failing, and he had to be fed by one of the staff or by me when I came for a visit. It seemed demeaning for him to have me spoon feed him just as I had done for my own children.

During his second year at the nursing home, the management took pictures of all the residents. They gave me Daddy’s photo, but it did not look like the dad I had known all my life. His hair was unruly, not slicked back in his usual style. And there was a wild, staring look in his eyes—almost a look of fear. I put the photo away with his other belongings. That was not how I wanted to remember my dad.

For the last five years of his life, Daddy didn’t know who I was. That is the saddest, cruelest thing about Alzheimer’s. It takes the mind but leaves the body to live an unknowing existence.

When Daddy passed away at the age of 84, I met with the funeral director about his burial arrangements. I told the director, “Don’t expect me to mourn for my dad. I lost him several years ago.” His reply was that he had heard the same statement before from other families who had lost loved ones with Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s takes away dignity, destroys the mind and eventually the body. It stole more than seven years of my dad’s life. But his memory lives on in the tapes of his music and in the photos of his life. My hope is that a cure will be found for this dreadful disease so that no one will ever again have to experience such a slow, cruel death.

October 2008    

Jane Clark is Co-Director of Writers Bloc and has been a member of the group since 2005. She is a retired advertising sales representative who enjoys writing memoirs, essays, poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in several regional and national publications, and a copy of her first novel True Allegiance was donated to the Salem Public Library.

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