The funny thing about Alzheimer’s….
Okay, I know there is nothing funny about Alzheimer’s, as anyone dealing with this affliction can attest, but in hindsight, I’ve been able to lighten up my memories of watching my dad suffer through it. I deal with difficult situations with humor, which usually causes me to say the wrong thing when trying to raise someone’s spirits. These good intentions often are not so well-received. For me though, humor is the best defense mechanism.
Yesterday marked the five year anniversary of losing my father. For the last six months of his battle, my husband and I moved in with my parents to help my mom with the caregiver duties. Being so close to the situation was stressful, overwhelming and sometimes scary, but now when we think of my dad, we often laugh at some of the things he did and said during that time.
Like putting butter on his salad.
And putting salad dressing on his steak.
And talking to the stuffed animals my mom kept in the living room. One day he had moved the chairs and tables around so that they could all have a little party.
At the time, these things were worrisome and weird, but now, they are kind of funny.
One morning was particularly frightening for the husband. I was at work and my mom had gone mall walking. She had left dad a note in dad’s cereal dish telling him that she would be back soon, but since he had no idea what that note said, he was crashing around the house, swinging his cane around, and swearing (which he never did) about “Where the f@$% is everybody?!” The husband was in the shower, not sure when or if dad would come busting through the door and think he was an intruder. Visions of being beaten to death by the cane of his father-in-law, coupled with being the only one home and not really knowing how to deal with dad when he was like this was terrifying. Fortunately, my mom came home minutes later and was able to calm him down.
Nothing funny there, right? You would think so, until we were in the car later that day and heard the song “Rock You Like A HurriCANE” by the Scorpions. And just like that, dad had a new nickname, and we were laughing like hyenas. Since then, he was ‘The Hurricane’, and now we think of him every time we hear that song.
Those of you who have had a parent with Alzheimer’s are familiar with the fact that they keep trying to escape. They want to go home, which they think is the house they grew up in. At this point, they have forgotten the recent years of their life, and think it is 20 or 40 years ago. So since dad had gotten out a couple of times and tried to walk from East Hartford to Wethersfield where he grew up, we had to hang some jingle bells on the front door. It was interesting to see when we noticed him planning his escape. He would sit quietly in the living room for hours until the second my mother would go downstairs to put the laundry in the dryer. As soon as she was out of earshot, he would tiptoe to the door and try to open it without anyone hearing him. We would hear just one little tinkle of the bells and we would jump to our feet and race downstairs before he could get too far. For a guy with two paralyzed feet and a cane, he could move pretty quickly when he wanted to. I once caught him at the end of the driveway, and had to try to coax him in by telling him the Yankees were on. “They might be on, but they’re not doing anything for me”, he grumbled as he begrudgingly followed me into the house. He didn’t know who I was, but he came back inside anyway. To him, we were his jailers, forcing him to stay somewhere, when all he wanted to do was go home.
Okay, that story didn’t have a funny part, but if you think about it, if they don’t find a cure soon, in 20 years, there will be jingle bells on every door. People will be fitted with tracking devices on their 65th birthdays so that in the probable event that they get Alzheimer’s, they can be tracked. (Call it Alz-Jack, maybe?) We may even have to adopt the nametag policy from that Seinfeld episode, since so many of us will have the disease that we will need to be re-introduced to everyone on a daily basis. And inside all of our clothes will be tags that say, “If found, please return to ___________.”
(Hmmm, I see the makings of a sci-fi novel here…..I’ll never get around to writing it, so feel free to run with that if you’d like. Just mention me in the credits.)
Dad was super funny with our little daschund, Jaws. Jaws is a girl, but dad would always call her “little guy”. He’d laugh at her clown-like antics, and when she was running around entertaining him, he seemed like he was there, in the moment. He wasn’t confused, he was just happy. So happy, that when we were all having ice-cream cones one day, he was sneaking Jaws licks off of his cone whenever I wasn’t looking. People thought it was weird that in his obituary we mentioned how much he enjoyed Jaws, but if they could have seen the change in him when she was around, they would have understood. Now when we have ice cream, we always tell Jaws, “If Grandpa was here, you’d be having ice cream too!”
Of course the worst times were when he was in the hospital. It was awful to see him wasting away because he wouldn’t eat. All of us tried to get him to eat something whenever we could. This was probably the hardest thing we dealt with, but it also presented us with the funniest thing that happened, which we still quote to this day. If you knew my dad, you would know that he was always in a good mood, even if he was sick. He would joke with nurses and was the life of the hospital party. He was in one of these moods one day when my mom asked him if he wanted to have something to eat. He said quite innocently, “Can I go to the bathroom first?” Before she even had a chance to answer he continued, “Aaand, I’m going!” He knew he was messing with her, even if he wasn’t sure who she was. He always loved to push her buttons, especially if he had an audience. I think that was the first time we actually laughed out loud at the hospital. Even my mom had to crack an exasperated smile at that one.
There were some nice moments also towards the end. One day my husband came into the hospital room, and my dad looked up at him with the biggest smile like his favorite person in the world just walked in. This moment of recognition meant so much to my husband. I had a similar experience another day when I standing by the bed saying goodbye before I went home. I know I won’t be able to describe his expression even with a thesaurus, but it was a look of awe and wonder and happiness. I swear he was seeing me with wings and a halo. That is the only way I can explain it. Still, five years later, when I think of that moment, I am filled with joy and warm-fuzzies. He knew me in that moment and he wanted me to know that he knew, even if he couldn’t put it into words.
So no, there is nothing funny about Alzheimer’s, but it is such a difficult thing to watch a loved one go through, that if you can find anything to laugh about, I say LAUGH OUT LOUD! It will ease the pressure of your situation, if only for a moment. In that moment of laughter, Evil Al doesn’t win.