Life is a journey. My wife, Carol, and I are at the point where we are caring for aging parents with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Dad is 96 and Mom is 94. I share this part of our journey in the hope it can help those who are in the midst of experiencing (or have experienced or will experience in the future) something similar!
The calls came from trusted church friends in Quincy, Washington: “Your parents are no longer capable of living on their own. You need to find different living arrangements.” I was prepared; I had it all figured out. They could come live with us in Newberg. We had created a studio apartment in our garage and would simply absorb them into our family. We would rescue them! After all, we already managed 8 octogenarians in the form of 2 goats, 3 chickens, 2 cats, and 1 dog.
I had big plans. Helping Mom and Dad enjoy life as senior adults was the perfect excuse to indulge my own interest in fishing, family genealogy, local history, and exploring the natural wonders of Oregon and Washington. I wanted to help them enjoy life in ways their driven lifestyle never allowed. In their prime, everything had been about “doing.” With this in mind, I lined up many potential opportunities to volunteer with Newberg organizations. I had covered the bases.
But it mostly never happened. Where they were mentally and physically didn’t line up with what they could do and would enjoy. Dad didn’t want to waste his time with unimportant stuff like fishing and sightseeing, and the bathrooms always seemed too far away. He wanted to do physical projects for the kingdom, but the thinking neurons in his brain were disconnected from his capacity to act through hands and feet. He simply couldn’t perform the work. Dad’s (and eventually Mom’s) mental recall of family history became increasingly suspect as memory failed. Fabricated stories, usually based on current events read that day in the news, began to take the place of the true stories. With great sadness, I watched the memories of my entire childhood and their last 20 years of overseas volunteer service disappear. They forgot the names of my siblings. And as they lost their ability to care for themselves, Carol and I coped by dropping out of most of our social and organizational commitments. Caring for Mom and Dad dominated our life. We put our dreams on hold. We began to feel trapped.
One thing that didn’t disappear was Dad’s incessant need “to do.” The question “What should I do?” was asked frequently and it irritated me greatly. Dad had always been a workaholic. He found much of his value in the physical projects he did for the kingdom—and there were many. I began “coaching” him (I fear somewhat condescendingly) to learn “to be” rather than “to do.” To learn to be content in all situations and with gratitude in his heart, to learn to bless other people and make life easy for them!
One day it hit me like a ton of bricks—all this good teaching at Dad boomeranged. I realized I had the same faults. I too found my self-worth greatly driven by performance, by what I could accomplish and the number of situations I could “save.” I had even “forced” Carol, using godly counsel, into a pattern of “good” works. She struggled to cope with my pressure as she cared for my parents day in and day out. I found I wasn’t nearly as altruistic as I thought I was. My self-righteous attitude was killing my wife. Things had to change.
About that time my mom fell, and the doctors strongly advised us to place both in full-time care. They currently reside in the Chehalem Care and Rehabilitation Center, within walking distance of my office. Visits are genial—even fun. Dad still plans on going back to Guatemala or Africa. Carol once again breathes free. Gradually the bitterness I didn’t realize I had is subsiding. We are working to establish a new normal.
Carol and I have really appreciated the cloud of witnesses at NFC who have taken the time to listen, to offer the gifts of presence, prayer, and encouragement to us through this journey. Thanks, Ralph, for your tender and courageous letters to Wanda as you too, deal with this mean, humiliating, and debilitating disease. Thanks Gregg, for the sermon on finding our value in Christ alone.
It wasn’t all tough. We’ve experienced good times as well. Dad’s hasn’t lost his sensitivity to the Spirit. Carol tells the following story: “Dad could still be used by Christ. Sometimes he would speak out of the blue directly into the condition or issue, even when he was unaware there was an issue. At one point he couldn’t go with Clyde and Mom because his legs weren’t strong enough. He was upset. I went out to feed animals, and when I came back in his face was radiant. He said, ‘I stayed home because Christ was coming to visit me.’ I said, ‘and he did, didn’t he?’ He smiled big and nodded. He may not remember how to get the food to his mouth, but he can recite memorized scripture and ‘sing’ hymns from memory. He carries them in his heart.”