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We were on a date, Ken and I, just getting to know one another.  We had been to the zoo in San Francisco.  While walking back to his car we noticed a man in the parking lot with a handful of tiny American Flags – paper – the size of a postage stamp – glued, possibly, to a tooth pick.  Wearing a military cap, and one of the picks stuck into the button hole of his lapel, he didn’t have to say he was a veteran.  We just knew.  It was also Memorial Day and the veteran was soliciting donations for the VFW or some other worthy veterans’ group.  Ken stopped, took out his wallet and handed the man a dollar bill.  In return my date accepted one of the tiny American flags and, with the accompanying straight pin, I placed it on his shirt collar.  Mind you, when we were dating, a dollar bill was worth a dollar – 100 pennies — and could have paid for both of us at the neighborhood movie.  I was impressed.  My boy friend was generous. 

My husband – who happens to be the same guy who took me to the zoo – has always been generous; not only with money, but with his time and energy.  If someone needed help he was the first to step forward.  Saturdays were often lost at home because Ken was helping a friend or a neighbor do some job that needed one more pair of hands.  So the chores I had lined up for “Honey” to do were postponed until another Saturday.  He had an insatiable desire to help others – to be of service – to “Pay It Forward” long before anyone ever heard of the book made into a movie.

 Several years ago, when Ken was better and we enjoyed life together, we saw the movie titled “Pay It Forward.”  If you didn’t see it the story was about a young boy who believed in doing good.  No one taught him, no one told him to be kind, to be caring, and to think of others.  The gift of charity came with his packaging – a spiritual gift.  It was one of those feel-good movies with a sad ending, which possibly sealed his message of paying it forward on the hearts of all who saw it.

          

The boy’s outline for doing good lay in three steps:  Watch for opportunities to help someone, do something nice for someone you don’t know, and spread the word.  When a surprised recipient asked “Why are you doing this?” the answer was to pay it forward, and the recipient could continue the good work by helping three other people — instantly making the world a better place – and then those three people could help three more people until everyone everywhere understood about paying it forward.

 

Surprisingly, I found on line that through the book and the movie a foundation was created to educate others about changing the world through good deeds, and November 17 is “Pay It Forward Day.”  I am also impressed at how contagious it becomes.

 

My friend Jack who is on Facebook wrote on his page, “I stopped by the grocery store and just staked out the people waiting in line.  I noticed an elderly lady, and as she neared the check out I politely asked if I could pay for her groceries?  ‘Yes!’ she answered, shedding a tear, as did I, and I paid.

 

“When she was through the line I explained how ‘Paying It Forward’ works.  Thrilled with the whole concept, she left saying that she was going home and bake cookies for the ladies at the bank.”

 

Jack later told me he went back to the store the morning after he had paid for the older woman’s groceries.  “The same cashier was working and said she could not stop telling people what I did, which inspired them to follow the example.  She, for instance, paid the dinner bill for an elderly couple at a Mexican restaurant.  The response from their waiter, the manager and the couple was unbelievable.”

 

Comments from other friends quickly filled Jack’s page, and with his permission, some posts are printed below:

 

“Wanted to follow up on the ‘Pay It Forward’ idea, but since I missed the actual day I decided to make it a quasi ‘random acts of kindness’ instead.  I was at IHOP w/my Mr. & son, and noticed there was a woman eating by herself.  When my waitress gave me my check, I asked for the gal’s also.  The waitress thought it was great.  I told her it was because of my friend Jack and paying it forward.  Jack, you are an absolute doll! Someone who understands true charity and practices it.  LOVE and admire your huge and expansive heart.  I am grateful to be your friend. You are amazing, Jack!  Now, that’s the Holiday spirit!”

 

 “Awwww Jack.  I love it. I’m going to do the same……”

 

“I try to do this on a regular basis!  It’s amazing how good it makes you feel to do something unexpected for others.”

 

“I’ve done that on the Bay Bridge – paid for the person behind me as I drive through.”

 

“You made me cry, Jack, you are too kind.  God bless you.”

 

“What a beautiful thing you did Jack.  Brought tears to my eyes.  I will certainly begin to pay it forward.”

 

“You topped me, Jack.  Near Halloween some bigger kids saw my ‘Trick or Treat’ candy in my cart and said, ‘I want to come to your house.’  They were buying a bag of cookies, and I grabbed their bag, handed it to the cashier for her to ring up on my bill, and tossed it back saying, ‘Happy Halloween.’  They were shocked and said, ‘Thank you, ma’am!’ Kidding, I said, ‘I’m going to take those back.  How about Miss.’ I love surprising people like that.”

 

“I give candy canes to the toll takers on the bridge.”

 

“Jack, I haven’t seen you or spoken with you in a decade or more.  When I read your post, memories of you came flooding back!  This is SO YOU!  I will put this on top of my TO DO list for tomorrow.  Thanks for reminding us to take the time to pay it forward.”

 

 If Alzheimer’s had not been in his way I know Ken would be doing good deeds for other people the year round not even remembering the movie.  After all, he was known to many as the nicest guy in the world. However, I know he is not the only one with that title, especially as we enter into this wonderful season of hoped-for peace and goodwill to all mankind.

 

It’s good to know that there are so many nice people out there doing thoughtful things for others, and many more who just need to be reminded. The only thing I will challenge about the November date is that it’s too close to Christmas. Christmas: when most everyone is kind-hearted and thinking of others.  Perhaps they should have made “Pay It Forward Day” sometime in mid-January – after the Holidays are over; when it’s cold and full of winter, when the lights are gone and the Christmas trees are waiting at the curb for the recycling truck, and our thoughts are about just getting home where it’s warm and inviting; when we might be inclined to fall back into thinking mostly of our own comfort — ourselves. January: when it can be dark and gloomy, and the storms of nature and life keep pounding at our door.  That’s when we need to do and say, “Pay It Forward and Keep It Going.”  Keep it going into the brightness of spring, the lazy days of summer, and into the colorful charm of autumn as Jack Frost reminds us once again of another winter, and a year filled with generosity. May we all strive to make the entire year glow with the Christ-like goodness we all have deep within our hearts.

 

Meanwhile, as you are finishing that last bit of Christmas shopping, don’t forget to pay a little something forward.

.

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“Hi.  This is Marvalee.”  “How good it is to hear from you,” I replied, “and what a nice surprise.  How long will you be here?”  Her voice always sounded bright and chipper with a touch of breathiness; the breathy part was that of a singer, and Marvalee was not only a singer, but a dancer as well, and had been most of her life. “I’m here from Maui visiting my mom,” she explained. “It’s her birthday you know.”  Yes, I knew, and I remembered the gala birthday parties Ken and I attended celebrating with Eva as her friends and family gathered to sing and dance away the previous year.  Marvaleee continued, “If you are free, I would love to come over and sing a few songs for Ken.” “That would be just lovely,” I answered.

The daughter of Ed and Eva, who were also entertainers – musicians —  and I use the past tense because they no longer perform.  Ed has long since passed on, a victim of Alzheimer’s, and following his inability to continue as their leader, members of the colorful band dispersed and retired.   Soon after Ed’s death, Mother Eva was stricken with the same dreaded disease, and has been with a caregiver for nearly ten years. 

The family, all from Hawaii, came to the Mainland to entertain in the best way they knew: songs and dancing Hawaiian style.   During the heyday of luaus, fire dances, flowing muumuus and island shirts, the band was very successful.  Natural musicians, most played by ear providing what Ken and I called the most danceable music in town.

Attending a luau whenever we could get tickets, Ken soon became known as a good sport.  Catching the eye of one of the gorgeous dancers, he was soon invited on stage to learn the hula or some other exotic dance.  My husband could be such a clown,and loved being in the limelight.  Wrapped in a grass skirt and wearing a lei he swayed back and forth as if he knew what he was doing.  He didn’t.  When the music stopped, Ken and the chosen others, bowed to a cheering round of applause, and returned to their tables – laughing.  He was, as always, a fun, if not an embarrassing, date.  And Marvalee, whose beauty and dancing rivaled no one, could always find him no matter where we were sitting.

 Soon after she called, the bell rang.  My door opened wide welcoming Marvalee and her friend, Mary.  The two burst into song, “Oh you beautiful doll……..”  My spirits were lifted even with my considerable hair loss and scar across my forehead.   Entering, we exchanged hugs and Alohas.  Approaching Ken for the same hug, he stiffened and drew back as I warned them not to get too close, he needed time to be comfortable with newcomers.  He was no longer a good sport, nor was he a fun date, and he didn’t remember Marvalee.

 Living most of her time away from the Mainland, she had no way of knowing how much Ken had regressed.  The fun-loving man she had remembered was gone.  Rather he sat down in a chair and glared at her, his lips drawn in a tight, straight line.  “At times Mama looks at me with those same tight lips,” Marvalee commented, Mary agreeing.  We compared notes.  We hadn’t seen Eva since January, but at the time she smiled at us and while she didn’t know exactly who we were, she knew we were important in her life.  “Probably not any more,” said Marvalee with sadness’.  “Most of the time Mama’s eyes are vacant and she doesn’t remember me – nor any of the family.”

Later Marvalee opened her music case and brought out a polished ukulele.  Strumming a few cords, she adjusted the strings and began.  Lilting strains of Island music filled the room and she began to sing.  They were newer songs than what her father and mother had played, and unfamiliar to Ken.  He sat in his chair, his lips still drawn in a tight, straight line.  Transitioning one song into another, the two women harmonized away the afternoon.  Ken hardly moved a muscle.

Her fingers moved across the strings once again and suddenly familiar music filled the air followed by the memorable lyrics from long ago, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.  You make me happy……..”  It was if the very sun had broken through the clouds.  Ken’s face came alive and he looked over at me, a broad smile erupting on his mouth.  Her words continued, somehow finding a path through the fog of tangled and forgotten memory.  Lovingly he looked at me, just me, and then he winked and pursed his lips as if to blow a quick kiss.   We were two souls locked in a moment of warmth by yesteryear’s melody and words.  A tear or two of happiness spilled down my cheeks, and I felt gratitude for Marvalee’s thoughtfulness and music, and for my brief flash of joy.

Marvalee played a bit longer; songs from the past and Ken continued to smile, but not in the same way and not at me.  Music had reached him, and he must have experienced a spark of reality and realized that something pleasant had taken place. For a time he was social and polite. “Thank you,” he called as the two women left.  I walked them to the door and gave each another hug and another “Aloah, thank you.”  “It was my pleasure,” Marvalee whispered.  “I got to see Ken smile — just at you.”

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A few months ago while still healing from major injuries, I browsed through a stack of magazines, mostly untouched. However, as I shuffled through the pile, I noticed my church magazine, the pages already dog-eared, was opened to an article intended to be the next read. Interesting, I thought picking it up and noting the eye-catching title, “GRATITUDE,” then asking, “Was this a message for me?” Certainly, I felt gratitude. After all I was alive and recovering, and yet I was nudged at times with, “Poor me.  Angry me.  Why me?”  Perhaps I needed to ponder about gratitude a bit more deeply.

Written by a practicing psychologist who had researched the use of gratitude interventions in promoting well-being, he found that by interceding at appropriate times during counseling, thoughts of gratitude were helpful in treating depression and other problems. The doctor also advised that acknowledging thankfulness would be helpful to everyone’s mental health no matter how grave their situation. As a result of being grateful, we could all lead richer, fuller lives.

He also defined gratitude: a positive experience when we recognize gifts or blessings and feel thankful.  It sounded so overly simplistic, yet I continued reading.  Soon I began to reflect on this later portion of my life concentrating on the positive rather than the negative.

In my own defense I counceled me that I have always been prayerful.  As a child, my teachers of faith described prayer as like a sandwich:  a top and bottom piece of bread, or better known in addressing Diety as a beginning and an ending.  Inside of the prayer sandwich we were to express our thankfulness first.   “Before we ask our Heavenly Father for anything,” he explained, “we must always remember to thank Him for what He has given us.”  That could be the peanut butter portion of the sandwich.  The teacher followed giving thanks with permission to ask — the jam or jelly.   As an adult I have wondered if this pattern for prayer was a bit irreverent, but it is such a good pattern, one which I have followed all of my life, and long ago I put aside any thoughts of peanut butter and jelly when making supplication.  Perhaps now, I needed to be more outreaching in my gratitude. 

I recalled from the past that Oprah devoted the better part of a year’s programming to gratitude and journal writing. At the time, I too was caught up in the thought process of making myself more aware of blessings, but never kept a specific journal. Recently, in her magazine, Oprah admitted that through the years she had become so consumed with work there was no time left to write about the good happenings of each day. Reading from an old journal she recognized those great years from before, and commented on how happy she had been.

 The author of the “GRATITUDE” article encourages keeping a Gratitude Journal as well, with the purpose of recording several remembrances each week, but not just in list form. He suggested describing the experience, recording thoughts and emotions for the purpose of savoring and reliving what you had experienced.

In reviewing the past six years of struggling with Alzheimer’s, battling the war which is never won, I remember my friend, Madalyn, who had also battled the same war, until her husband, Darwin, died three years ago. “It wasn’t all bad,” she would tell me, and we often laughed about some of the funny things Alzheimer’s victims do and say. She reminisced about trips they had taken, visits with family which brought joy to her and momentary pleasantries to him. Her happier times with Darwin were similar to mine with Ken. These were all positive experiences: gifts and blessings recognized and thankfulness felt: gratitude.

When I came to the paragraph titled “Express Prayers of Gratitude,” I decided that would be my new beginning. As I continued my recovery in the quietness of my daughter’s home I reflected on being grateful for little things:   One at a time I could lift each foot, place it on the opposite knee and tie my own shoes, I could shower alone and I was beginning to feel confident once more. I wasn’t searching for big, dramatic epiphanies.   Deliberately, I looked for small things to appreciate because there are so many, and small blessings are often overlooked.  Every morning before I struggled out of bed I would look up at the ceiling — still wearing my neck brace and unable to kneel in formal address to Diety — close my eyes and offer a prayer of gratitude without pleading for any favors. (The favors could be requested in later prayers.) My morning prayers would be only of gratitude. I was amazed by the multitude of gifts taken for granted  for which I had to be grateful.

I have been home now for more than two months and my gratitude list grows each day. Ken’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse, but because of his caregiver, Ben, I have a sense of freedom. If I write for a few hours during the day, I know Ken is all right. Ben is with him, and I can nap undisturbed because Ben is here. I am grateful for Ben and for his relief, David. I am grateful for each new day, and my growing ability to actually help Ben with Ken. I am eternally grateful for family and friends. I won’t say I’m grateful for Ken’s illness, because I am not.  I detest this dehumanizing disease and how it has robbed us of so many good years. However, I am grateful for my coping mechanism, my compassion and awareness of others who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other devastating illnesses. I am grateful that through my writing I may help someone else; letting them know they are not alone in their struggle. I am grateful for Ken and the wonderful years we have spent together. Every so often, I see a spark in his eye and a smile. For a moment he is the man I married. Feeling gratitude and offering thanks each morning for all of this and more gives me strength.  Each day I can and will go forward into our daily battle, beginning with a prayer of gratitude.

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I couldn’t agree more.  After six years of watching the cruel disease destroy my husband’s mind and the life we had together there is nothing funny about Alzheimer’s, but death isn’t funny either.  Yet, we all make jokes about death and think nothing of it. 

 Recalling a scenario of two golfers at the 18th hole:  The one golfer took off his hat in respect as a funeral procession drove by on an outer highway.  Bowing his head and standing silent for a few moments, his partner commented on his thoughtfulness.  “It’s the least I could do,” stated the now-attentive golfer, “we were married nearly 50 years.” 

Obviously, his dedication to golf was more important than paying a last tribute to his deceased wife.  It is so improbable, it makes good humor.  It’s a joke.  Certainly, someone from Comedy Central doing stand-up about dying  at a funeral would be totally inappropriate, but then again at the reception following a burial we gather as a grieving family and friends and relate remembrances of the departed with laughter and with tears streaming down our faces about their life and living as we recall numerous funny moments.  There is a parallel between happiness and sorrow, sweet and bitter,  joy and grief, and it’s through that parallel that we find humor and often a release for pent-up saddness.

It’s true, I’ve never heard cancer jokes, nor have I heard jokes about many other devastating diseases which ravage so many, but there is something about being forgetful and confused that lends itself to humor, especially in the beginning. 

When my father-in-law was given his last driving test, the examiner told him to make a left turn at the next corner.   He did exactly as instructed.  However, it was during morning commute hours and the next street was a main thoroughfare.  Nick made his left turn as the sounds of cursing, horns blaring and brakes squealing filled the air.  The examiner turned white and instructed my father-in-law to stop the car and get out.  Driving back to the DMV, the shaking man removed himself from the driver’s seat and told my husband, “Your father’s license is permanently revoked.  He is never to drive again.” 

All the way home Nick complained that the examiner had tricked him, failing him after he had followed instructions.  “But Dad,”  Ken told his confused father, “You must obey the traffic signals first.  You drove through a red light.”   No accident followed his error and no one was hurt.  Did we laugh?  Yes, and we have laughed for years.  Is it an AD joke.  Yes, and I laugh, even now at some of my husband’s confusion.

Midway through our marriage, we invested in rental property as retirement income, and for years have dealt with tenants, maintenance, rents, rental agreements, and collecting rents.   Every business has its own jargon with which the owners become very familiar and those terms become part of our everyday conversation. 

Early on in Ken’s AD, there was an evening when he looked at me and knew me not.  Suddenly a stranger in his home, he ordered me to leave, firmly saying, “You don’t belong here, get out of my house.”   I replied with equal firmness, “I am not going anywhere, this is where I live.”  Flustered that I would not leave, he looked at me and with all the authority of an irate landlord demanded, “Show me your rental agreement.”  I burst out laughing.  I was his straight man and he was the comic.  Whenever I tell the story, people laugh.  It is a funny Alzheimer’s story.  Is Alzheimer’s funny?  No, but there are times when what the victim does or says is funny, and why shouldn’t it be all right to laugh?

Granted, there must be parameters guiding what is a cruel and in bad taste, and what is okay.  Admittedly, humor walks a very precarious line when making jokes about such sensitive subjects as illness, disorders and even death.   Remember Tim Conway doing his shuffling old man?  Offensive?  No, but it could have been.  But Conway did it in such a sweet sensitive way, that even the elderly, shuffling old people could laugh at the truism.  That same kind of sensitivity is what opens the door so we can laugh away a portion of the pain of some of the terrible challenges which life gives us. 

A few years back I read a letter to the editor of an AARP publication in which the writer stated that she would never again see or listen to Bob Newhart.  Continuing her complaint she said, “Alzheimer’s isn’t funny,” citing  a Newhart  joke about his dog having Alzheimer’s, which she considered poor taste.  However, the audience roared — she was greatly offended — and no doubt overly sensitive because of a close loved one having the disease.  For me, being able to laugh — even about this terrible monster — is part of the armor I wear in my day-to-day battle of living with its life-sucking destruction.

Recently on the sidebar of my Blog there was a reference to “Onion News Network.”  The htt://wwww etc. that I zapped didn’t define where I was going until I got there.   Nor did I notice the clever onion graphic because of the slick professional and serious look of the mast-head.  Intrigued by the blurb which said something about laughing a lot or you cry a lot, which has been my motto since the mid 70s when I began caring for my AD in-laws, I clicked to the web.  Popping up on the screen was a very serious-looking newscaster commenting on the results of a study by a “well-qualified” doctor who stated that over 80% of Alzheimer’s patients were  misdiagnosed. 

So sincere was the broadcaster I believed I had clicked on to the wrong website, but I listened because of the stunning announcement.  He continued, stating that an 88-year-old woman had been held for months against her will, but was released when she convinced authorities her small children were left at home unattended.  Excuse me? I thought.  An 88-year-old having small children at home — finally realizing that I was, indeed, at the right website.  Continuing with the “newscast,” and a few more startling (and funny) interviews the last clip showed attendants guiding and wheeling elderly, confused and often decrypt men and women out of a care facility into the sunshine, supposedly on their way home.  One agile old man, still in his bathrobe was running across the lawn shouting, “I’m free, free at last.”  I watched the clip a few more times to catch the full humor and it did give me my giggle for the day.  It was funny.

Is Alzheimer’s funny.  No, definitely not funny, but we can laugh at some of the situations produced by its presence.   It isn’t being calloused to see humor in life’s journey even when it’s sorrowful, remembering that laughter is the best medicine in becoming strong.   As caregivers, family and friends of the stricken, we must fortify ourselves with all the strength and energy we can muster in order to continue fighting the discouragement, the frustration, the anger, the depression, despair and the futility of battling this monster of a disease which ultimately will triumph.  Until then, and long afterward, I will hang my banner high for all to see, “If you don’t laugh a lot, you will cry a lot.”

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THE HIGHEST OF HONORS

Most of the people with whom Ken and I have shared our adult lives made the choice, following marriage, to have children — lots of them.   The trend, which was very popular after World War II and the Korean Conflict was to have large families.  As part of that trend, we are the parents of five offspring:  two girls and three boys — stragglers of the “Baby Boomer Generation.”   Our years of rearing children were the best years of our lives, nothing out of the ordinary: normal, I would say.  We did PTA, Dads’ Club, Little League, Scouts — boy and girl — church with all of its youth programs and activities, enjoyed their friends: good and tolerated the bad; we endured sick days, happy days, school days, vacation days, holidays and rebel days.  We angst through the 60s and worried about drugs, hippies and all the ramifications that went with young people coming of age during such a tramatic period of history and being faced with choices where their lives could have been damaged, ruined or even claimed by death, but they survived and so did we.

The growing years went by in a blur as if we had pushed the fast-forward button of a VCR.  Some of our brood went to college, others did not, but in any event, they all did the same — and the normal thing — as young adults they picked up their lives and went their chosen way.  Normal — and happy:  that’s what we wanted, yet as each one left the nest they left an empty spot in our hearts.  For most of the years which followed, they have lived close by with their growing families, and we consider that a blessing.  While we are no longer the strong beacon of influence we hope to have been, we treasure  the grown-up relationship we have with all of them.

Parenting, however, is still such a constant, and while Ken and I had rediscovered “us” and had moved on into our retirement years, we wanted that safety net to remain for these grown children: the knowledge that we were and are still “there” for them — in every way.   It isn’t because they really “needed” us, it’s their knowing that counts.  I’ve often compared us, “mom and dad,” (other moms and dads as well) to the stove and refrigerator — even the washer and dryer — the house, the car — home; “there,” we’re just “there.”   We are part of that security, that solidarity which they have known “always,” and will, hopefully, remember in a good and loving and “normal” way.

So what do we, as parents, expect in return?   Actually nothing, but cards and perhaps a few flowers, or some other small token of love on birthdays, Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day; love and respect and occasional phone calls — and visits.  But accolades?  I don’t think so, believing myself and Ken to be ordinary people. Yet, to my surprise my daughter, Debbie, nominated me for “Caregiver of The Year” through a website out of Chicago: http://www.caregiving.com with Diane Brown as the host of the site, and her own internet/radio program.  I am one of the five recipients to receive the award and I am honored and humbled.  When I read Debbie’s letter of nomination, and her description of what she has observed over the years, I cried.   Such a high compliment to receive:  for her to see me not only as her mother, but as a wife, a person — an individual in my own right — someone who has had a life and has, posssibly, made some kind of contribution to mankind and the world in which we all live, and for her to want me honored is an honor in itself.  The following is her letter of nomination:

“I am writing about my father’s caregiver, my mother.  Given all the other service-oriented activities she has been part of:  PTA, Scouts, Little League, and church, this would not be out of the ordinary, but my father is the fourth family member with Alzheimer’s that she has given or directly supervised their in-home care.

“Her first experience with the disease came with my father’s parents.  I cannot remember when they were stricken, or what their ages were.  I remember their 50th wedding anniversary; my grandmother was 68, and my grandfather 12 years older.  They both seemed fine at the event, but shortly after the celebration, my mother began to make more and more visits to their home.  They lived about 40 miles away and my mother made several trips a month to take them to the doctor, for haircuts, or to make sure they had food in their cupboard and refrigerator.  My father’s sister lived a few blocks away from them, but because she was a single mother and worked full-time, she had little time left to spare. 

“My mother was truly the sandwich generation, as I had three younger brother’s still living at home.  I know that she was devoted to home and child care, but she was also realizing some success as a freelance writer.  However,  by unspoken agreement between my father, his sister and herself  it was a given, because she didn’t “work,” the responsibility of caring for my father’s aging parents would belong to her.  Even though the current social climate touted women’s rights, liberation and the importance of career, my mother’s dreams of being a writer were squeezed between appointments, errands and all the other aspects of her busy life and giving nature.  She had no time to think about whether she was liberated. 

“With the death of my paternal grandparents, the needs of her own parents soon crept in and once again began to take over her life.  When her own mother developed the same symptoms that her in-laws had shown, she moved them from their country home, which was two hours away, to another home just a mile from her own.  Her older sisters lived two states away, and the burden of care for their mother fell on mom’s shoulders.  Once again her time was spent in the busyness, stress and exhaustion of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient.  As her mother’s condition worsened, they tried a care facility.  Its effects were devastating not only to her mother, but also to her father who could not handle the toll the confusion and foreign surroundings brought on his wife which only added to his own despair.  Luckily my mother found a dear friend who took over much of the burden of caring for the older couple the last few years of their lives.  Despite the help, mom was very much involved in their care.  She was continually at their home doing what she could and again, the sole driver for appointments and outings, which continued until the elderly couple passed.

“Following a few years respite, the ugly signs of Alzheimer’s appeared in our family once again, this time afflicting my father.  After her experience with her mother and in-laws, one might think she would be an expert, but not so.  Everyone is different and seeing your parents change into people you no longer knew, cannot be the same as having your beloved spouse of almost 60 years, not only not recognize you, but demand that you leave your own home.

“My mother has risen to this challenge with fortitude, determination and a sense of humor.  She has become somewhat of an expert on the holistic treatment of this disease, and in a sense, she has won.  Whether it is the day-to-day battle or the full war, only time will tell.  After six years my father continues to live at home.  Each day he takes a handful of pills and vitamins that may have allowed him to retain enough of his personality to care for his physical needs, and for the most part functions as a young boy in their home, with small moments of time as my father.  The war will be over when he is taken to his Heavenly home.  Hopefully that will happen sometime in his sleep and then my mother will be victorious, as she has finished this last act of marital service and love.  I cannot imagine the emotional pain this has wrought on her, and the torture she has felt as she has lost her soul mate, bit by bit.  Her perseverance and optimism are amazing.  Her example reminds me that we are never given more than we can handle.  And through this all, she has developed her talents and her career.  The disease and her life have given her a story which she shares in a blog.  Eventually there will be a book — an example of courage and service for other caregivers and her legacy of service and love to her family.”

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My friend Dorothy cared for her father following the death of her mother at 94.  Dad was 96.  The couple married in their early 40s, had three girls, and managed to stay alive long enough to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, plus a few more before she left.   Had the old man been given a choice he would have continued living in the family home by himself because he felt capable.  He never owned a car, nor did he drive.  Instead he rode his bicycle to places he needed or wanted to go, often declining an offer of a ride.  His dear wife either walked or accepted that offer of a ride to get her to those places she needed,or wanted to go.

A self-taught man and an avid reader Dorothy’s dad would sit for hours, the newspaper held up to his nose as he laboriously studied each blurring word  through what we all called his thick “coke-bottle” glasses.  He was determined not to slip behind on what was happening in the world.   In addition to his fading eyesight, Dad’s hearing faltered even with the best of hearing aids.   Therefore, conversations were cranked up a few decibels allowing him to share some of his insight.   A delightful old man, with a clear mind, sagging shoulders, a hesitating gait and a good black suit for church come Sunday morning,  he could still preach along with the best.   Surrounded by a loving family, grandchildren and great-grandchildren he often lamented he was alone and lonely. 

“But, Daddy,” Dorothy would say, her head cocked to one side trying to convince him that life was good and worth living, “you still have us.”   “I know, Sweetheart,” he would reply patting her outstretched hand.  ” but with Mama gone, and all of my friends gone, I don’t know why the Lord keeps me here.  I need to be with them.  I miss my friends.”  Dorothy’s dad lived to celebrate a full 100 years.  Ken and I went to the party.  A few months later he joined his wife and friends.

Back then, during our middle years, our lives sprinkled with grandchildren, family and friends intermingling; none of us, neither Dorothy or husband, John, nor Ken and not I fully understood why the old man couldn’t grasp his still  rich life.   If all friends, contemporary friends, were departed, certainly with sadness, life  had to be all right because there was still family.  Right?  Wrong!  Mankind thrives best when they have both. 

Friends and siblings are those with whom we grew up.  They laughed at our skinned knobby knees and we cried together at the movies, and, again, when we got dumped by that really cute guy.  Their concern was pure and meaningful.  Friends were with us at our wedding, wishing us well and cheering that the groom wasn’t that jerk who wouldn’t take no for an answer, and we returned the favors when they stood at the altar with their chosen mate.   As friends we all posed for pictures with our babies and our families grew up together.  Friends shared all of the world and national events of our parallel lives, making our period in time important beyond measure for us.  We wore the same fashions, the same funky hair styles, sang the same songs and danced to the same music.  The “good old days” are still conversational when we get together, our sentences beginning with, “Remember…….”  Friends remember the way we remember.   Now, looking back we see our children have developed their own important friendships, and how their friends are loved by us almost as much as we love our children.  Like us, held together within our own generation, their commonality will keep them close in their own social capsule of time.

With family, and as we are now the seniors, family is mostly our children who are only a phone call away and here at a moment’s notice,  it’s also them we call first with good news or bad.  But  it’s still our generation of friends who know and  understand us, whether they be newly acquired friends or friends since our childhood.   Some of our friends have already passed on, and we miss them terribly.  Now I understand the longing of Dorothy’s dad.   It’s a special missing, a special kind of loneliness.  Yet, there are many friends who remain and for them I am grateful.  They seem to have an  uncanny sense in knowing when to call or drop by often bringing us small tokens of their love when their presence is more than enough.  We still share one another’s joys and sorrows, remembering the good times of our younger lives — and the bad — and they help carry our heavy burdens of illness, no matter what the disease.   Friends and family — family and friends — I am so grateful they are  all a part of my life.  What would we ever do without them?

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