Recognizing changes in a loved one whether it be physically or mentally is very hard for most caregivers to do. Often it is someone who lives some distance away and doesn’t visit on a regular basis that first notices these changes.
Ten years ago, I lived in Madison and was able to come up to see my parents once a month. It was during these visits that I began to see inconsistencies with my Dad’s memory. At the time, his response was to attribute these lapses to being “part of the old age program.”
However as the years passed it became apparent that this was not a part of the normal aging process and that something was wrong. It was after one of these trips home that my husband and I decided to move back, as we knew it would be helpful for all involved. Even so, Dad’s memory continued to deteriorate until in 2005 we were able to see a Neurologist who diagnosed him with probable Alzheimer’s disease, which was validated years later through testing at Mayo’s Memory Clinic here in Eau Claire.
Coincidentally, shortly after Dad’s diagnosis I was approached by Harbor House Memory Care to work for them. At first, I was hesitant, not knowing how close to the disease I wanted to be. However, after visiting the House I realized that the care and compassion the caregivers were providing to their residents was truly outstanding. That they were encouraging and enhancing people’s lives every day through their activity programming, their communication techniques and in the loving way they treated everyone who came through their doors. In short, I felt that if the time ever came that Dad needed more help than our family could provide Harbor House was the place that I would want him to be.
I was lucky that for the majority of my father’s journey with Alzheimer’s he stayed relatively healthy and usually was in a great mood. As the disease progressed, Dad’s memory and judgment lapses became more evident, but he never lost his social graces. Therefore, many of his friends and family did not recognize there was any issue until about a year ago when my father fell and hit his head.
Up until this time, my main role had been to go to doctor appointments, check on Mom to make sure that she was doing OK and supply tips and tricks that I had learned where I could. However, after Dad fell the blow to his head caused his dementia to advance very quickly and after a month in the hospital, Dad went to a Nursing Home that was close to my Mom. It was heartbreaking to see someone who had once farmed 300 acres, while working full time at Uniroyal sitting in a wheelchair and smiling blankly back at you, because he no longer remembered your name.
Yet I knew my Dad was still “there” when he would try to go outside to sit the evenings just to watch the “world go by,” because that was something he did every night at home. However, this particular facility was unable to accommodate that activity and our family was able to fulfill my wish to have Dad move to Harbor House (now Azura Memory Care).
Upon coming to Harbor House, he was met with smiles, hugs and engaged in conversations about topics that he was interested in. The first time I saw Dad go outside to sit on the Harbor House patio I cried, because just doing that enhanced his life, but he also began participating in activities, walking with a walker and eating a normal diet. I think he said it best, when after getting out of the hospital and arriving back at Harbor House he said, “It’s good to be home.”
As a caregiver, it was wonderful to see him every day, but I was lucky in that my Harbor House Team did the majority of Dad’s hands-on care. As a result, I had the opportunity to relish the good morning moments when Dad would say, “That’s my daughter,” or “Hi, Red.” While he never really remembered my name, he knew I was someone special in his life and that I made him feel safe and loved.
Unfortunately, Dad had other medical issues, including congestive heart failure that caused his physical health to become jeopardized. In late November, after back-to-back hospitalizations the physicians and my family came to the agreement to place Dad on Hospice at Harbor House. In addition, we focused not on the quantity of the rest of Dad’s life, but the quality of his life.
As a result, we stopped poking him for blood sugars and restricting his diet to no sweets. Now he could eat blueberry pie and ice cream whenever he wanted to and trust me he loved every bite. As we headed into the holiday season, we all felt that it would be wonderful to have one last Christmas with Dad, but as his congestive heart failure advanced, we quickly realized that was not meant to be.
We called our family together and visited with Dad to ensure he was comfortable, pain free and at peace. We held his hand, fed him his special treats, and on December 14, 2011 helped Dad find his angel wings. All of my family was on hand to help him take flight, just as he would have wanted.
During the days after people expressed how hard it must have been to be there for Dad and how hard it is to be a Caregiver. In looking back, what I see is the countless moments of joy that I have in my heart, because I chose to go on this journey. I also see the amazing people like YOU who have supported me or whom I have possibly been able to help because of what I have learned.
A few days before Dad passed, as I was sitting on his bed feeding him some of his special pie and ice cream, he reached up and pulled me down for a hug and quietly said, “thank you for all that you have done for me.” This was the last thing that Dad said to me and it will be something I will personally review and treasure forever.
Thank YOU for going on this journey with me. No worries, I am will continue to keep on writing as long as I am able, plus as I am finding out that a caregiver’s journey is never really done.