“At least I got my 30 in. I’d hate to start all over again now with the way things are,” said the old man in the recliner.
We were talking about the economy and watching a ball game. The old man is my father, age 89, a World War II vet and retired autoworker.
I was “father sitting” while my mother attended my sister’s 50th birthday party. He has the usual ailments a man his age might have—loss of muscle mass among them—so he rocks back and forth to generate momentum to get up from his chair, and he uses a walker to get to three of the only four destinations left on his map--the kitchen, the bathroom or the bedroom.
But, it’s not the lack of strength that keeps him from this party or keeps him indoors. It’s a more disturbing condition--dementia.
I asked him why he doesn’t go outside anymore. He replied, “I get to the end of the sidewalk and I don’t know where I am. I’m scared.”
He’s not ashamed of his answer, this man who drove a tank at the Battle of the Bulge. He’s just stating a fact.
“I know Dad,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“Where’s mother?” he asked.
“She’s at your daughter’s. She’ll be back in a little while,” I said, assuming he meant my mother, his wife, although, he sometimes means his mother, who has been dead 57 years, but who he sees frequently in his dreams and otherwise.
I changed the subject. I tried to engage him in his past because he’s lost touch with the present. He will read and reread the paper, not remembering the content from day to day. He will watch the same television shows over and over again. I asked him about work. He retired as a set-up and repair man, but couldn’t recall what he did before that. We talked about the union having part-ownership in Chrysler. He said, “There were a lot of two-faced people back then. They would talk about going out on strike and get everybody all worked up and then not do anything.”
I didn’t understand how that answer related to the question I asked, so I thought about it until he interrupted my thought by asking, “Where’s mother?”
“She’ll be back in a little while.”
We sat quietly for a few minutes then he started to rock back and forth. He stood. Grabbed his walker and shuffled to the bathroom. When he came back he said, “I hate this limping around like this. I could have brought this on myself by not exercising.”
I replied. “Yes, you should exercise more.”
I changed the subject.
“Who did your drywall,” I asked as I looked around the living room. “They did a good job, cove ceilings and archways.”
“You brought the guy to me. Remember, he lived off Dorr near the railroad tracks.”
“You have me confused with your brother. I was four when you starting building the house,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, trying to sort out reality as his mind phases from past to present.
A commercial came on about health care. He’s been retired one less year than he’s worked. He took 30 and out. He’s drawn a pension for 29 years and been fully-insured for 59.
He sat up and pointed to the television, to President Barack Obama. “Does that man have a colored daughter?”
“That man is the president,” I said.
“He’s the real president?” he said in astonishment. “Gee. I read a short section about that. I didn’t believe it.”
I didn’t know what to say and nothing I could say would have mattered to him. I got up and carried a coffee cup back to the kitchen. When I returned, in less than a minute, he looked up startled and said, “Who are you?”
“Oh, John,” he answered his own question. “Where’s mother?”
“She’s at a party. She’ll be back soon.”
She deserves a few hours to enjoy herself and forget the burden she bears 24/7. When she leaves the room for more than a few minutes, he calls for her. He confuses her with his mother. At times, he doesn’t recognize her. The pain she must feel. It’s been 60 years since he kept his promise to return to France to marry her. He was once so strong, so vibrant. Now, he can’t recall the life they’ve shared.
“What did we eat?” he asked, less than an hour after we ate.
“Hot dog, bean soup, salad,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said.
The answer triggered a memory. “It was bad back then. Real bad. But Hitler kept going and that’s what got us going. There were only two factories open in 1936, 1937 that I knew of. It was The Depression.”
He paused and added, “How long has she been gone?”
“One hour and 18 minutes,” I said.
“They must have run into a bonanza, One dollar here, 10 dollars there. They must be spending a lot of money,” he said.
“She didn’t go shopping. She went to see your daughter. Did you like your work,” I asked, changing the subject again.
“I didn’t mind it. There was work I liked and some I didn’t, comci, comca.”
I turned my attention to the ball game.
We sat in silence.
“How long before we go home?” he said a little while later.
“You are home.”
“When is she coming back. I need my wife by my side.”
“So you can go home,” he said.
I couldn’t tell by his facial expressions whether or not this was a joke. But, it was okay. I owe him. I was glad to be there. And, like when a needle skips on a record, I’ll keep nudging it over, hoping to find a shared reality. I’m not the only one doing this in my family, nor are we the only ones doing this in America.
And, I owe her, too.
According to Consumer Reports, about 8 million Americans suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s.
The numbers are expected to increase as life expectancy increases. It is estimated that between 30 to 50 percent of those 85 and older have some form of dementia, according to emedicinehealth.com, a Web site owned and operated by WebMD. It is the largest cause for nursing home admissions.
For more information, go to www.emedicinehealth.com or www.alz.org.