Alzheimer’s. Enough Already.

Several months ago, my dad’s nursing home roommate died. No one called to tell me. Well, they called, but only to let me know my dad would be getting a new roommate. 

“That’s fine,” I said. “But, why’s he getting someone new? What happened to Mr. Grant?” 

“Oh…well. Sadly, he passed away a few days ago.” 

“My God,” I said. “I just saw him!” You know. As if that mattered. 

I hung up the phone and thought about this, because I am nothing if not an over-thinker. What if I hadn’t asked? Weren’t they going to tell me? Didn’t I deserve to know? 

I didn’t know Mr. Grant, of course. In general, it’s very hard to know a person once they’ve reached the stage where they need full-time dementia care. But I said hello to him all the time and he occasionally said it back. I listened when he muttered to himself about someone who was “always too busy” and “why don’t I just dig my own grave.” I did not share my dad’s cookies with him, because he was diabetic and wasn’t supposed to have them. I suspect he helped himself to them anyway after I’d gone. It’s possible that I had a hand in killing him, by bringing the cookies in the first place. I choose not to dwell on that.  

These days, every time I go to the nursing home, I take a mental roll call. There’s Bert, who sits by the window and never fails to ask whether my kids are playing baseball today. There’s Grace, who always wears a winter coat and only wants grilled cheese for lunch. Over there is Richard, who thinks he’s married to Margaret except when his real wife is there, then he’s married to her. And here comes Annemarie, who is one of my favorites. Recently a guy was shaking the back of my dad’s chair for no apparent reason, and Annemarie walked over and stood in front of my dad, leaning so she was right in the guy’s face. “If you don’t leave him alone,” she said to the guy, “I will knock you on your ass.” Annemarie is about 84. The guy, either chastised or frightened, walked away. 

Days go by where I don’t see one of them, Annemarie or any of the others, and I start to worry but I feel weird asking. Like maybe HIPAA prevents me from inquiring as to whether a person is still alive. I don’t know. Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen Stevie and his Scooby-Doo doll in a while, nor have I seen Mr. Gordon, who says hilarious things and then turns around and threatens someone’s life and/or limbs. Once, I got there and the person I couldn’t find was my dad, but then I located him riding an exercise bike in the physical therapy room, because he is like Michael Myers and really cannot be killed. It is unsettling to say the least. 

There are new people coming on the floor all the time – honestly, it gets to where a person can’t keep up. I did make friends with a woman named Elizabeth, who has very nice hair and who told me about the time Mario Lemieux visited the nursing home. Which never happened. There’s another lady who throws entire drinks on nurses and aides and then screams at them to bring her another. “I said, bring me more water, bitch!” Her words, not mine. You can’t help but think she was always like this, that she beat her children with wire hangers and threw skillets at her husband when he dared stop off for a drink after work. But the fact is, you have no idea. She may have been the brown-sugar-scented grandma of your dreams. This is dementia. 

It’s Annemarie who I wonder about the most. She’s a busybody and a flirt, and she’s not afraid of anyone (hence the “I will knock you on your ass”). She tells me often that I don’t need to worry, that she takes care of my dad when I’m not around. “I love him,” she said. When I expressed my appreciation for this, she followed it up with, “Listen. What I am saying to you is that I am in love with him.” She also told me once that she’s 94 years old (she isn’t) and that her mother, still alive, is 130. “People can’t believe it,” she told me. “I’ll bet,” I said. 

I can’t imagine that Annemarie could die – die! – and I would never know it.  

That’s it. I’ve made up my mind. Next time I go there I’m going to ask, at least about Stevie for sure. Stevie once told me that when he was young he’d been hit by a train in Oakmont, but he didn’t sue anyone because he’d been running numbers at the time and worried about getting in trouble. It had the ring of truth and so I believed him, even though I’ve watched him “feed” Scooby-Doo with my own eyes.

Last but not least, there’s Ellen. She doesn’t say much. She’s small and resembles my mother a bit, and once my dad said she was his girlfriend. I think he’s since forgotten the relationship and I’m pretty sure she never knew about it in the first place. Her husband was with her one day, and he told me they’d been married for 58 years. Ellen’s face lit up at this.

“We’re married?” she said, awestruck.

“We are,” said her husband. “You’re my wife.”

“Oh!” I’d never seen Ellen smile before, now I didn’t think she’d ever stop. “Well,” she said, “it’s so nice of you to come and visit me.”

My family and I will participate again this year in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. You can join our team or make a donation here. We probably won’t cure Stevie or Annemarie or the water-throwing lady or my dad. All the same, I’m pretty sure future generations will thank us if we can put this nonsense behind us once and for all.

Can’t Kill Him Even With The Euthanasia Cocktail

Maybe a year or so ago, my mother told my dad, “I was just in the hospital for a few days.”

This was around the time that my mother’s health, never great, really started to go downhill. She’d just learned that she had atrial fibrillation on top of the COPD, high blood pressure, super-high cholesterol, and fairly extreme artery blockage. My mom had spent years taking care of my dad, which couldn’t have done her health any favors. By the time of this particular hospital stay, he was already in a nursing home and so knew nothing about where my mother had been.

“I was really sick,” she went on to tell him. “I could have died.” She was hoping, I’m sure, for some care. Compassion. Concern. Something.

Here is what she got instead: my dad looked at her, shrugged, and said, “Really? Huh. I was all right.”

And we laughed and laughed, because this is how it had always been. Mom struggling through, lucky to come out alive some days, while through it all Dad remains “all right.” Even as his mind has failed him, he continued until very recently to insist to anyone who would listen, “I’m in good shape.”

Well, you can’t kill Daddy. This was my mother’s and my joke. Because you couldn’t. He seemed to walk through life in an invisible bubble, not catching colds, not breaking his arm, not even getting sunburn. I am pretty sure the guy never took so much as a Tylenol, except for the occasional hangover.

I am also pretty sure that despite it all, you still can’t kill Daddy.

As I’ve mentioned before, he stopped eating around the time my mother died, and lost over twenty pounds in a few weeks. It was upsetting and highly unusual, and I couldn’t believe I might lose both parents in such a short amount of time.

He got better. He’s gained the weight back. He eats fairly normally now.

His right leg became swollen, and they were concerned it could be a blood clot. All that sitting, I thought. I wouldn’t be surprised. 

It was apparently not a blood clot. A few days of antibiotics and the leg was fine.

Then he got pneumonia. Well, this might be it, I told myself sadly. He’s old, he’s weak. Maybe this is just his time. While he had pneumonia, he fell and hurt his hip. You could see he was in pain. They were worried the hip might be fractured; we’ve all heard of elderly people who break a hip or an ankle and it’s all downhill from there.

They did an x-ray. He had not broken his hip. It doesn’t seem to hurt him anymore. He’s also over the pneumonia.

You cannot kill Daddy.

Captain Immortal, enjoying a little light reading.

Then, one day, I got a call from his hospice nurse, saying he was in bad shape. Apparently, the night before, some severely misguided nurse had given him both Ativan and morphine for “restlessness.” A sedative and a narcotic, for someone whose restlessness never extends past a tapping foot or jiggling arm. He was practically comatose for the entire next day and into the night.

Needless to say, I was quite alarmed.

“Has something changed?” I asked the director of nursing, when I finally got in touch with her. “Is there something I need to know about his behavior at nighttime?”

Eventually, after much prompting on my part, she told me that no, nothing had changed. “There was no reason for him to be given those drugs. We’re educating our nursing staff.”

“Better educate them quick,” I told her. “Because when I Googled ‘Ativan and morphine combination,’ I immediately came across the phrase ‘euthanasia cocktail.'”

Both the director of nursing and the director of the entire facility looked mildly panicked at this. Which was more than a little satisfying and hardly surprising. “Oh God, no,” one of them told me. “No one was trying to kill your dad.”

“I know that,” I said. “But, they might have killed him all the same.”

I have no intention of suing them. I never did. But I left the vague threat hanging in the air anyway. What the heck.

What I didn’t tell them, but what they’d have known if only they were paying attention, is the one, most obvious fact.

Fact: you can try; you can do your damnedest. You could probably detonate a nuclear weapon right under his nose. You can take away everything he loves in life, his grass-cutting and his bird-feeding and his two pieces of toast in the morning. Go ahead, give it your best shot. Because no matter what you do, the simple truth remains. As my mother and I knew all along: you just can’t kill Daddy.