By Jeanne Rivera
“You are not too tall , you are just statuesque!” This was Dad consoling me in middle school, as I shot several inches above the boys in my class. My father always knew the right thing to say, even if I wasn’t sure I wanted to be statuesque. He made me feel special and deserving, and he was always in my corner.
Dad left my sister, brother, and me with so many happy memories. Growing up we went on numerous driving trips, and Dad always pretended he had a CB. He’d make the squelching noise and then speak into his cupped hand, “Breaker One Nine, Breaker One Nine, this is Batty Daddy, Over.” We would laugh, and sometimes groan. He was such a joker.
And he was an avid reader. Dad read aloud to us all the time. We listened to many novels, but I most remember collections of short stories. Dad would make funny voices for the lines we loved: Mrs. Piggle Wiggle ’s Radish Cure with, “Ing e a ink of ater, Addy,” Penrod and Sam ’s, “Excuse me, but I must ‘a’ got your bumpus!” and the always popular Elephant’s Child’s, “This is too butch for be!” from Just So Stories.
Dad was also very artistic. He painted pictures, made furniture, and carved wood. One of his favorite creative outlets was playing guitar. Dad taught himself to play when he was young, and he loved all types of music. He played Beatles’ songs as we kids did the dishes in the kitchen, and we sang along. He played Country & Western ballads for friends and family. As we got older, Dad played guitar with my brother, and eventually with my son. Dad wrote his own songs for different occasions, including one that celebrated my son’s favorite TV show at the time, “Alex Mack.” Over the years, Dad amassed quite a guitar collection, which he enjoyed displaying. He just always loved music!
Dad started showing signs of Alzheimer’s in his mid-sixties. Mom noticed it first. Dad was always so outgoing and gregarious, the rest of us didn’t catch on right away, and Dad did not want anyone to know. But eventually it was apparent. Mom did everything she could to keep life as normal as possible. She and Dad took a couple more long driving trips over the next few years. When that was no longer feasible, Mom made sure they took walks outside, saw friends and family, and listened to lots of music.
I live in Illinois, and my parents lived in Florida, where I was raised. Being so far away from my parents during this time was hard. My husband and I took our normal annual trips down to visit, but that was definitely not enough. So, with my husband’s support, I left my job and started traveling down to stay with my parents every month or so. My first thought was to use these trips to support my mother. The caretaker’s role is just incredibly hard, with so much stress and worry about doing the right thing and making the right choices. It can also be lonely. I wanted to help Mom out in any way I could by visiting her frequently.
I believe my trips did help my mother. But what I didn’t expect was the absolute joy I derived from spending time with my father. I will forever cherish the memory of those visits. I stayed close, and I am incredibly grateful that I did. Even as Dad progressed through the disease, I tried to engage with him as he had always engaged with us. I took him on walks. I read him the stories we enjoyed when I was a child. I made the funny voices for Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and Penrod and Sam and Just So Stories , and Dad laughed. We listened to lots of music, and Dad snapped his fingers and tapped his toes. I sat very close and rubbed his arm and held his hand. And Dad would smile. He smiled a lot. And I did, too.
Dad passed away a few years ago. I miss him very much – we all do. Mom, with some help in the house, had been able to keep Dad at home. Mom is truly incredible. She still worries if she made all the right choices, but I know Dad’s life was happy and comfortable until the very end.
My hope in telling my story is that everyone will stay close to an affected loved one. It can be scary when this happens to someone you care so much about. You may subconsciously start to pull away. Don’t. Instead, get closer. Your loved one still enjoys all the activities they did prior to this happening to them, and I encourage you to continue as many of those activities as you can. You will positively impact your life just as much as the life of your loved one.
Youngsters should stay close as well. Children may not understand what is happening to their loved one, and there can be a tendency to shelter our children from seeing their loved one decline. But children can help and children want to be helpful. I wrote a children’s book to share this message with as many youngsters as possible. “Grandpa Doesn’t Remember My Name” is available on Amazon. I hope my book opens dialogues about how children can help loved ones suffering from dementia.
Remember, stay close!