Love, aging, and dementia: Laughter always helps

Love and laughter always help 

I'm returning from a week of disconnecting from the election and the world to visit with my 90-year-old dad and my nearly-90-year-old mom.

Dad has dementia. It's a bummer, and I'd do almost anything to give him back his sharp and agile wit. But I'm still grateful to see him and we found ways to have fun. We cleaned up his garden and planted chrysanthemums. We felt cozy echoes from the past -- from my first memories of "helping" him by putting plants in their plots upside down, and from stories he's told about helping his elderly grandmother transplant seedlings as a child. He used to know the genus and species of every plant. Now, he doesn't. But I don't remember them either. My mom supplied the names for the little stakes we put in the ground last spring.

We bought new shoes. He's worn slip-on sneakers all summer because he can put them on himself. In addition to dementia, Depuytren's syndrome has turned his fingers to talons that make tying shoes tricky. When I asked what he was looking for he pointed to his sneakers and said, "like these, only warmer." We ordered some, but didn't tell him how much they cost, because his price sense has reverted to the 1950s. 

The shoes arrived and he put them on promptly, delighting in the fact they were, indeed, "like these, only warmer." Instead of canvas, the shoes were leather with a thicker sole. They made a funny sound on the kitchen floor. He tippy-tapped around, enjoying the sound like a kid with squeaky shoes. He asked if he could wear them to dinner. "Of course," I said. "Little kids even wear their new shoes to bed."

He pretended to think about it, but then decided he'd hurt my mom if he kicked her accidently in the night. He lives on a knife-edge between confusion and clarity, childhood and adulthood, frustation and amusement, patience and fury. But the care for others never fades. The man who was once a brilliant PhD scientist cannot now finish a sentence without help. Nor is he sure how many people live with him. Or where I come and go from when I visit. But my dad is still there. The gentleman who tries to insist that I sit in the front seat, even though he can no longer manage to crawl into the back. Or the one who forgets he needs his rollator to walk and offers to give me a turn. Or who makes sure I see the sunset and the blue heron on the pond.

Nearly a year ago, I brought him two stuffed bears for comfort. He talks to them in bear language and I'm not sure whether it's a game to entertain himself or me. But it doesn't matter. This same man treated my bears royally and spoke to them respectfully when I was small.

Years ago back when he was able of body and mind, but another relative suffered gravely from dementia-induced anxiety, he suggested a stuffed animal might help. It did. It was in honor of that suggestion that I brought the bears to him. He likes their softness and cheerful smiles.

He still delights in wildlife and the change of seasons. Tells stories about old family pictures and meeting my mom.

But it wasn't all rosy. One night he awoke at midnight thinking it was six a.m. -- late in the day for a former farm boy. When we suggested he go back to bed, showing him the time on the clocks and the stars in the sky, he thought we were strangers trying to scam him. It was horrible, but my mom takes comfort in the fact that whenever he is overwhelmingly frustrated and wants to vent, he turns his anger on a person we cannot see.  We all know, especially my dad, that he would never speak to my mother the way he speaks to that invisible stranger. We think his brain protects him from remembering that he was angry and rude to people he loves.

He still reads the New York Times every morning and revels in discussing what he's read. Because we share political ideals, there's no danger of hurt feelings. He makes ready comparisons to earlier tumultuous times that I find comforting. If they could survive Goldwater and McCarthy, and join the rest of the country to fight Hitler and Mussolini, I can survive upcoming changes in the Washington power structure.

He hugs me every morning and night, and pretends he needs my hand to steady him when he walks. But I watch to be sure he doesn't cross the lawn and climb a hill he can no longer reliably handle. My mom and I panic when we see the front door standing open, but are delighted to find him sweeping the porch because he was afraid my mom might slip.

We fold sheets and blankets we did when I was small. When I leave, he wants to help, so I hand him my coat instead of my purse or my suitcase, both of which are too likely to unbalance him.  And I hug him close, telling him I'll be back soon. We both get teary, and I wonder if this will be the last time I see him. Or the last time he'll remember I'm his daughter. But then I remind myself it doesn't matter. When a man has loved you unconditionally for nearly 60 years, the love doesn't end. If he can't remember, I'll remember for him.

The frustrations are many, for him and for my mom, who is losing her dearest friend and the love of her life. But he still loves her and needs her, as she does him.  There's more to the story, of course, including all the support provided by my siblings, the neighbors, his doctors, physical therapist, and many others. But that's enough for now. Enough, sufficient, and for now are words we use with increasing frequency. And laughter helps. Laughter always helps.