I am sharing an article I recently wrote for my company's January news letter. I am on the Diversity & Inclusion Council and so this is my personal story about how this issue impacts my life. If you want to, please share your story. I received so many emails from all across the country after my article was published, and that is just within my company. Trust me, you are not alone.
Don't You Forget About Me....
As the holidays come to a close, we put away the decorations that remind us of such a happy time of year, and say goodbye to loved ones, I often get a little sad. Mostly because it is so much work, and I live in Utah where January and February are very cold and snowy and the skies are gray.
This year was even more emotional for my siblings and me. My dad is suffering from severe, degenerative Dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease. It has been just over three years. My mother is the primary caregiver, but in the last year, her physical and emotional health has degenerated from the stress of taking care of my dad.
It is estimated that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have some form of Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. And that number increases as the population ages. Alzheimer’s is not a part of the normal aging process, but the risk of developing the illness increases with advanced age.
My dad is 77. In June 2007, he and my mom moved to Barbados to serve on a religious Mormon mission. He had just retired after 46 years working at Hill Air force Base managing the online Military Defense Department. He had also just retired from the Army National Guard as a Full Bird Colonel. My dad was a planner. He had made good investments, their home was paid off, and he had two pensions coming in plus social security. My mother had worked teaching school for over 30 years, and she retired before they went and had her pension and Social Security coming. They were thrilled to be moving to the Caribbean for the next three years. Frankly, so were we!
Our first trip down to the island was for Thanksgiving in 2008, and they were thriving among the very diverse environment on the island of Barbados and loved the people and their way of life. My dad was becoming quite the local photographer, and my mother was speaking a combined form of English and Rastafarian; she still does. “We be comin’ for suppa ‘round say 6pm. Now you all be havin’ a bless-ed Sabbath,” my 72-year-old mother will say in a voicemail. She loves those people with all her heart.
We visited again in April 2009, falling more in love with Barbados with every trip. Their time on the island was coming to an end, and they had mixed feelings about coming home. We decided as a family to take one last trip to the island in April 2010 before they came back to Utah in June 2010. However, when we got there, things were very different. My Dad was very quiet. While he had always been quiet with three daughters yapping away all the time, this was different. He had always driven when we were on the island, but during this trip, he got us hopelessly lost several times. My mom’s left knee was now bone on bone and would have to be replaced when she returned home, so she was walking with a cane. I watched as my dad got out of the car, shut his door, and walked right into the restaurant, church, or wherever we were and let my mom struggle to get out; something did not feel right.
When they returned home at the end of June, it was worse. He could not find the bank or the grocery store or any of our homes. He could not drive anymore. Within the last three years, my dad has rarely recognized friends and neighbors. He knows I am his daughter – but not which one. I have a twin sister, a younger sister, and we all look similar. When I see him, I just say, “Hi, Dad! It’s DeeAnn!”
I’m the only sibling who still wears glasses, and I keep wearing them because every once in a while, my dad will recognize me by my name because of them. In fact, this past Christmas Day my Dad said, “Merry Christmas, DeeAnn! When did you start wearing glasses?” I just said, “Merry Christmas, dad. I love you!” and took a moment to compose myself. I often get emotional after receiving a very special gift. I hold it close to my heart as a memory because I really do not know if I will ever get another one.
Alzheimer’s is cruel. Most of us, just like my dad, work all our lives for our families. My dad worked for 45 years. He took the van pool to Hill AFB every morning at 5 a.m. for work, was gone one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, and did four years of active duty for the military so he and my mom could travel and enjoy their home, family, and grandchildren debt-free after retiring.
My dad took us to summer camp with him to California each year, and we spent two weeks on the beach and went to Disneyland and Sea World. We were with the other army moms and our summer “army brat” friends. We stayed in family housing and went to the chow line to eat and loved every minute of it. All you take with you are your memories – unless you have Alzheimer’s.
I took a trip to New York last year and went to Ground Zero. I brought my dad a book about the tragedy and the memorial reconstruction. He must have asked me 10 times as we looked through the book, “Who did this?” “Why did they do this?” and “Where did this happen?” He remembers nothing about 9/11. Remember, he’s a retired Full Bird Colonel from the Army.
Now, my dad rarely speaks and barely leaves his home. Crowds make him feel anxious, chaotic, and afraid. He is frail and thin and does not remember what it is like to feel hungry or thirsty. He does not remember what regular items (toothbrush, razor, soap, or shampoo) are for. He also needs a home health care nurse, which my mother takes to mean that she’s somehow a ‘failure’ as a caretaker. That is the rock and the hard place my sisters, brother, and I are facing right now.
I know I am not alone. I am certain there are many team members going through similar life experiences. If so, reach out. Hey, you play the cards you are dealt, but that does not mean I could not use a tip or two.
Finally, keeping a sense of humor is crucial. My dad wears a patch for his memory. When I take care of him, he always asks why he needs that patch. I tell him that it’s to keep him from smoking. He says, “I’ve never smoked in day in my life!” and I say, “Good thing you wear the patch!” He laughs, every single time.
You can find many resources regarding
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease a
Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.