I recently heard a lyric sung by Ronan Keating, which perfectly describes the emotions evoked when caring for aging parents: “Life is a rollercoaster/Just gotta ride it.” Not a Six Flags aficionado? Me neither. We don’t get to choose. Mom will break her hip at a time when we’re already stressed to the max.
The past eleven years caring for my 93 year-old dad have been like an extended stay amusement park and I still have a series of barrel rolls and corkscrew turns to go. I’m starting to think feline genes run in my family. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not complaining about Dad repeatedly pulling through after I’d given him up for dead, but this ride on Space Mountain is shortening my own life.
If you have a parent with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, you know that Sherlock Holmes skills are a must. My dad can’t tell me what’s wrong when he stops eating, if he’s in any pain or why he doesn’t want to get out of bed. Behavioral observations yield only educated guesses.
Last week I was sure my dad was about to transcend to the pearly gates. My dad’s doctors, hospice team and experienced facility staff were convinced he had pneumonia and was aspirating food. He looked terrible and refused all sustenance, save three glasses of orange juice per day. When my dad started behaving like a fickle feline, turning his nose up at chocolate ice cream, his favorite treat, I knew something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
My husband and I were on death watch, visiting Dad several times per day, scouring the answering machine for messages the moment we walked in the door, and emailing “Dad updates” to my brothers and sisters. We were so confident of our psychic powers that my brother contacted the pastor at the church where we’d buried my mom’s ashes to alert him to the fact that she would soon have company. We double-checked Dad’s cremation plans. I googled “How long can a person live without food?”
As it turns out, our crystal balls had malfunctioned in unison. Five days after Dad was down for the count, he had a sudden reversal of fortunes. His health returned to baseline and his mood resumed its wild swings between perky and cantankerous. If Dad were still verbally adept, he would have scolded up with Mark Twain’s retort: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
This is the second time Dad had played rope-a-dope with a virus, and like Ali, ultimately won the fight. These recurring resurrections throw me for a loop and evoke starkly conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I’m pleased that my dad is still with me so that I can continue to shower him with my love. Yet, I also wonder what’s in store for Dad. Will his resilient body persist and allow his dementia to progress to the point where he forgets how to swallow? I hope not.
All I know for certain is that I’d better get used to thrill rides. That’s the reality of elder care. I just hope I haven’t inadvertently stumbled into Ohio’s Cedar Point, home of 17 roller coaster rides. I don’t think my stomach could take it.
Lorie Eber, JD is a Gerontologist and Certified Personal Trainer, who teaches Gerontology at Coastline Community College. She is also a writer and a Keynote Speaker on Healthy Living, Healthy Aging and Elder Care issues. Lorie’s Dad is 93 years-old and suffers from vascular dementia. Visit her website: www.AgingBeatsTheAlternative.com. Read her eBook: www.amazon.com/author/lorieeber.