My first experience with dementia was with my Romanian grandfather 30 years ago. I was especially close to him because we shared the same birth date (different years). He was 84, living in a nursing home. Joan and I would sneak garlic bologna to him because his children forbid it. We figured if it was the one thing that brought him joy, besides watching the numbers for the Lotto, what could it hurt.
He recalled with me a memory, back in the old country, of him wheeling me in a wheelbarrow all the way to the doctor’s house because of my illness. I reminded him that I had never been to Romania and that he was probably thinking of my father. He cocked his head and looked at me strangely like I was the one in the wrong. It disturbed him, and picking up on this, I agreed to his reality and admitted I did remember that event. He smiled at the memory and his resourcefulness. Joan and I exchanged knowing glances and laughed at my resourcefulness.
Fast forward to the present day and my dad has slowly succumbed to the effects of dementia. About five years ago he struggled with simple recollection of daily things and words that were not coming to him. Shortly after that it was directions and orientation. Now it appears things have advanced to the point of merely recognizing faces of the people he loves. Words escape him and his language is primarily a form of babble, of which I can only discern about 20% of the words. He invents words and language spoken with inflection and purpose, that makes sense to him alone. I can tell if he is asking a question, but sadly have no idea what he is asking. I sometimes guess the answer based on his facial expressions. Does he want a yes answer or a no answer, or something else entirely? I must admit that I am fairly good at the game and have a pretty decent batting average.
My father has taught me so many things over the course of my life, and most of what I have accomplished and become I owe to him. Before Google was invented, my dad was my Google. I could ask him anything and he would know the answer. Unfortunately, he would take more time than was necessary to give me the answer, but I miss that now. He was a killer at crosswords, Trivial Pursuit, Jeopardy or any type of puzzle. He taught me the magic of compound interest and tax deferred growth on the back of a napkin at Arnie’s Bakery in Grand Rapids, during my college years.
He has gone from one of the smartest men that I know to an aged toddler who doesn’t speak my language and is unsteady on his feet. Two years ago, when his understanding and his speech was merely diminished, I asked my aunt to speak Romanian to him over the phone and he couldn’t understand a word of it. Last month, during a visit, I used Google Translate to translate English words to Romanian while looking at a copy of Field and Stream. A picture of wildlife lay in front of us and I asked him to point to the Caine (dog). He looked at me like I was crazy and pointed right to the dog. Encouraged by this, I pressed on. Point to the Rata (duck). He spotted all five of them, slowly drawing his finger from image to image. He seemed pleased. I called it a day instead of treating him like a parlor trick and I found myself satisfied that we were able to communicate.
Watching someone close suffer with Dementia has been a challenge for all of us, which is the point of this short blog. If you have not been affected by dementia in one way or another, it may merely be a matter of time.
All of this is quite personal, and I am not looking for sympathy but only to share it with you in case you may find it helpful. On my next blog, I will share what I have learned about this unfortunate disease. I hope it will help.