Sunday, October 04, 2009

overheard at the old folks home

First gentleman: "How's it going?"
Second gentleman: "Horrible. Awful. It couldn't be worse."
First gentleman: "Oh, I'll bet it could be."
Second gentleman: "Do you have a colostomy?"
First gentleman, looking at his watch: "No. But I have the time."

My father is in a home. That's how we used to say it growing up. "She went to an old folks home." It was always the old folks home, never a nursing home, and retirement centers and assisted living centers didn't even exist. Just old folks in their homes away from real home.

Daddy's with the old folks. It's temporary, but spending the last several days with him left me feeling sad and a little hopeless. So many old, old bodies, barely functioning, so many with brains not working except in the most basic sense. It's easy to say at my age that I wouldn't want to live that way. But something makes them cling to life, no matter how wretched the quality.

We had lunch with a man who's only 62. Chemical engineer, worked for Conoco, just like my dad. He is worse than my father at just 62. He is terrifying to see in such a state: withdrawn, nonverbal, unable to respond to conversation. I review the things I know contribute to dementia: high blood pressure, smoking, lack of social outlets, inactivity, lack of exercise, family history. What, if any, of these factors led to his being incarcerated at the home with the ancient ones? He's just 62.

My sister and I can't take our eyes off of him, she with white matter in her brain "like a very, very old woman or someone who smoked for a lifetime." Me with a brain that cycles at insane speeds and veers off onto tangents and can't concentrate on a single thing for more than an instant. Our family history is frightening enough to instill in us both a grave sense of foreboding. Will we last as long as Daddy, who was lucid into his late-80s? Or will we be like aunt Tilly, like cousin Molly, who were mad with dementia in their 50s and 60s? My grandmother had it, a grandfather too. My father's brother is in an old folks home in Dodge City and he no longer knows his own name.

I picture being locked up in a home in Mexico. My Spanish language skills will have vanished with the shrinkage of the frontal lobe that brings on the madness afflicting my people. I imagine that if I get really bad, I could set out on that six month around-the-world cruise I've always wanted to take, and at some point, under a full moon, perhaps in the Indian Ocean, I could leap over the side and let my last breath be the salty sea that I love. Maybe I would have the presence of mind to know when it's bad enough that I should sail out into the Gulf and simply keep going until it's too late to turn around. I don't know that I would have the courage or the consciousness of my condition to decide when I've had enough, but should it happen to me, I pray that I will.

Meanwhile, I don't smoke. I watch my blood pressure, exercise a lot, learn new things. I avoid behavioral ruts, interact with people, and pray. I pray that I can have another 15 or 20 good years; 25 would be a blessed gift. I pray that my father will be able to let go of this life before his suffering becomes unbearable. And I curse the empty space where his frontal lobe used to be as I lie awake at night wondering if it's already happening to me.

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Blogger Chris said...

I hope you get that extra 25 to enjoy your paradise!
So sorry you are having to watch your parent go through this difficult time......we did it also with my MIL, and every time my husband forgets a word, I panic!! All the more reason to enjoy life to it's fullest.........

October 05, 2009 11:07 AM  
Anonymous lynette said...

Yes, to the fullest. I am grateful that my sweet papa had some wonderful times in his life. I just wish he could remember them now :(

So sorry about your MIL. I know what you mean about your husband. I watch Mike like a hawk. He can't show a moment's confusion or lack of understanding about anything that I don't panic.

October 05, 2009 12:06 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I just want to throw my arms around you and give you a big hug right now!!

October 06, 2009 8:15 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

My father had Parkinson's-caused dementia for the last 14 years of his life. He had been a brilliant man who spoke multiple languages and remembered every fact he ever learned. It was so hard to watch, hardest of all in those moments when he had awareness of what he'd lost and was losing. Researchers have found that it's genetically linked.... I understand your fear and the hope you have of ending it before it ends you. I tell myself that I can only live one moment, one breath, at a time. Sometimes that even works.

October 10, 2009 7:09 PM  
Anonymous alto said...

Lynette, I completely hear you. Currently going through a similar scenario with a parent and cancer that has manifested in cognitive impairment.

The practical management of that has truly been one of the most horrendous, guilt inducing, and complex issues I have ever had to face.

That of course is said by someone with a masters degree in community health, and significant experience in the field. HA! Quite the wake up call to my own ignorance and helplessness in an area that even specialists don't have a great handle on yet.

Good thoughts with you my friend.

October 14, 2009 9:52 PM  
Blogger Mary K said...

You freakin' rock. This post and the one called home were beautiful. They tore my heart out.

November 28, 2009 9:03 PM  

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