Dealing with dementia

AARP recently published a gut-wrenching, heart-warming article entitled Tony Bennett’s Battle with Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s runs in my father’s family. Paco’s father and all three of his siblings who survived into their seventies struggled with it. Because of his history, Paco enrolled in a long-term medical study on the effects of medications as possible preventatives for symptoms of the disease, which, unfortunately, did not find any effective medications.

As Paco aged well beyond the onset age of his afflicted family members without symptoms, we were relieved, as it looked like he might have avoided those particular family genes. People did always say that he took after his mother’s side of the family.

There are, however, other types of dementia, the risks of which increase with age. Paco, who will turn 96 next month, is suffering from some unnamed type of dementia. We are grateful that, while the memory loss is problematic, he has retained his generally cheerful disposition, sparing us all the personality changes that were so jarring in Paco’s father and siblings.

He has been having memory loss and cognitive problems for several years, which we had been managing with daily visits, phone calls, notes, pill organizers, and staff help. Things got immensely more complicated when COVID limited our in-person visits and disrupted Paco’s daily routine. It also made a possible move to the assisted living unit where his care could be better addressed more difficult, as family visits were nearly impossible for months.

When Paco became ill and was hospitalized in December, the decision to move out of his independent living apartment was made for us. There was no way that he could be safe without 24/7 staff availability, which he now has in the assisted living unit, where he has his own living room, kitchenette, bedroom, and bathroom along with three daily meals plus snacks, a nurse to manage and deliver his medications, aides to assist with activities, and the company of the other residents, all of whom have now been vaccinated against COVID-19 and most of whom he knew because they also started out in Independent Living in their senior community. Unfortunately, in-person visiting of people outside the unit is severely restricted, although I’m hoping that increasing vaccination rates and warmer weather permitting outdoor visits will ease the situation in the coming months.

Because I genuinely do try to address issues that are on the top of my mind here, it’s been difficult not to write about Paco’s dementia more directly over these last years. For a good chunk of that time, I avoided it because Paco followed my posts via email and I was afraid posting about it would further confuse or upset him. Now, he is well beyond being able to navigate email and websites, so I don’t have that worry – and the few people who read my blog and know Paco in real life already know the situation.

In truth, I’ve also had difficulty articulating my thoughts and feelings around this. Although my family dealt with cognitive decline with both my mother and father-in-law when they were terminally ill, Paco’s long, slow loss of memory has been even more excruciating. While I can adjust to the loss of short-term memory that results in answering the same question multiple times in a short phone conversation, I have a harder time dealing with the loss of long-time skills and words. When he can be looking at a dinner plate with his favorite food but not remember what it is. When he forgets the name of someone he has known for decades. When he, who was always meticulous in following his finances, can no longer add numbers.

It’s painful. Every time. And hard to express in words. Even in poetry.

My consolation is that it is seldom upsetting to him. By some grace, he is handling things with equanimity with only occasional moments of frustration.

He keeps reminding me of his favorite saying, “We’ll take it one day at a time.”