Is My Father There? Losing a Parent to Alzheimer’s
“But I don’t want to go.”
“I made this doctor’s appointment weeks ago and it’s too late to cancel. If we get done in time we can stop for an ice cream before I bring you back.”
Although similar conversations occur countless times between a mother and child, this one takes place between my father and me. As an Alzheimer’s disease victim, my father has been reduced to a dependent, childlike individual who relies on others to meet his daily needs. The progressive disease, which races through his brain and nervous system, robs him of the knowledge and functions he knows. Now at age 83, he can’t remember if I’m his daughter or his sister.
Frank Kalil enjoyed a life of vast experience. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he was raised in a poor family with nine siblings. By his thirties, my father was the top geologist for the Egyptian government. As the political situation worsened in his homeland during the mid-1960s, dad aborted his high-ranking position, left his wealth and fled to the States with only his wife and two young kids. Here, he took menial jobs until he established himself as a geologist with the U.S. government ten years later. Retiring at age 72, he lived a quiet life filled with opera music and books about history and archaeology. Life was good for mom and dad until a bleak and unexpected report came from a gynecologist’s office.
“I’m afraid your wife’s test results show cancer cells, Mr. Kalil, and it doesn’t look good,” stated Dr. Statco. This shocking news impacted my father deeply and its delivery was about as subtle as a raging missile.
The months to follow were filled with aggressive cancer treatments for mom. As she was degenerating physically, her husband was decomposing mentally. Within a year and a half of my mother’s diagnosis, she lost her battle with cancer as my father and I watched her basically drown to death on her hospital bed. After she died, my father showed aggression and confusion about his wife’s premature death. He was becoming more and more hostile and irritable.
Further visits to doctors revealed that he was experiencing early signs of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). “You’re going to have to get tough-skinned, because as this disease advances, it can cause even the nicest people to become hurtful and insensitive,” said the neurologist. We have also since learned that AD is marked with two distinct features, wandering and aggression. The wandering would come later.
The Mayo Clinic reports that when people with AD become frustrated, scared, or unable to communicate, they may become aggressive. They recommend:
- Make sure loved one gets enough sleep — Fatigue can cause combativeness.
- Reduce loud noises and physical clutter in your home — Limit guests and use television sparingly to avoid over-stimulation.
- Don’t expect too much — Don’t try to teach new information. This only results in frustration.
- Include exercise and light housekeeping chores in your loved one’s daily routine — This may reduce restlessness.
- Don’t argue with or quiz your loved one to test his or her memory — If you need to ask your loved one questions, make them easy to understand and ask them one at a time.
- Keep your loved one’s routine and environment consistent and simple — If you need to make changes, make them gradually.
- Try to be pleasant — If you’re feeling angry, stressed, irritated or impatient, try not to let it show; show only calmness.
- If your loved one becomes frustrated, provide reassurance and distract him or her with another activity — After some time has elapsed, you can return to the original activity if necessary.
- Don’t panic — If your loved one becomes agitated or aggressive, soothe your loved one by holding hands, rocking, or gently patting his or her back.
The distinction between loss of memory from old age versus Alzheimer’s can be distinguished by discrete behaviors. Misplacing car keys can be due to age-related memory loss; forgetting what the car keys are used for or trying to change the TV channel with a cordless phone as my dad does can be a sign of AD.
A big problem for people with AD is they no longer realize they need to eat to stay alive. My dad reached a point where he wasn’t interested in maintaining his health, and his condition continued to worsen. I took his car keys away after he crashed trying to drive out of his driveway. When he began to leave the house on foot and was unable to find his way back, it was time to move him out of his home.
One of the most difficult events of my life was the week I packed my parent’s house and sent all their belongings off in Salvation Army trucks. My father’s prized books on art and anthropology were donated. My mother’s cherished lace gloves and hand-made bags were gone. I remember packing one box after another feeling like I’ve lost both parents at once. But there was no time to cry because there was too much to do.
My brother and I devised a plan to move dad out of the house; Paul would stay with the movers as they packed and I would take dad on an outing and deposit him in his new apartment. When the movers showed up early, it threw us off course. “Why are you forcing me to leave my home,” my father whimpered as he tried pensively to tie his shoelaces. Dragging him away was heartrending. The moment was full of emotion as we all tried to pull off a feat that none of us wanted to do.
Dad spent four months at his new home, calling me numerous times a day to ask me to take him home. I routinely received at least two-dozen calls from him each evening, but on occasion, 70-80 calls would indicate a particularly bad night. His questions were always the same: “Are you my wife or my mother?”; “Do you have children? How come you never told me?”; “Do you live near me?”
As soon as I thought we had him settled in, I received a call from a gas station attendant asking me to come pick up my father. (I had put a phone roster in his wallet.) He had walked for miles looking for a bus to take him back to Egypt. At that point, it was time to place him in a lock-down facility to prevent wandering.
Dad is now in a constant state of confusion, locked behind a steel door and a tormented mind. In our reversed roles, my father relies on me when he’s afraid, confused or in need. I, in turn, am committed to his care and check on him several times a day to be sure that his needs are met. Early recollections of my dad evoke feelings of profound security, support and a love that can only be shared between a father and a daughter. For this, my devotion to him and his wellbeing remains endless.