Sitting on one of the windowsills in my apartment, I survey my surroundings. Black reusable shopping bags filled with food, books, and other household items are strewn around the floor in the kitchen and living area; two black and country style kitchen chairs waiting to be placed, a white laundry basket filled with cosy blankets; two large cardboard boxes from IKEA are ripped open on the ground.
When you’re a bigger person, in a much smaller world, things are going to be different, and sometimes they may even be hard, but that doesn’t mean you need to fear them or avoid them. Body image in Bangkok and most of Southeast Asia is vastly different than what we face at home.
This is it, I’ve hugged my Mom, grabbed my backpack and day bag, and boarded a bus to Union Station in Toronto. Tonight I’ll be laying on a single bed with a white fluffy duvet, the sound of the train clicking along the tracks and the gentle sway of the carriage lulling me to sleep. The start of my four-day journey to Vancouver. But before I leave, before I start my journey, I need to do one thing. I need to change my desktop picture from one of Apple’s colourful landscape shots to a photo of my Dad. The same photo hangs in my Mom’s house. It’s the photo that rested atop his casket at his funeral. It’s the last photo I took of him that shows the man he was before his Alzheimer’s disease set-in and changed his personality.
I always debate about whether or not I should write about being an overweight traveller. It’s not that I think people will leave nasty body shaming comments, which I’m sure a few would, it’s more about the fact that I hate talking about it.
And that is the problem, nobody talks about it.
It’s been almost two months since my Dad passed away in a hospital room in Fergus, Ontario. I remember getting the call to drive home early from Québec City, which resulted in the longest nine hours of my life, where I pleaded for him to wait for me to get to his bedside. Two days later I was holding his hand, stroking his hair, and telling him it was time for him to go. I then watched him take his last breath.
Born on the dining room table at the farmhouse in Bracebridge, Ontario, Dad was the youngest of twelve children (nine boys and three girls). Premature at birth, he was taken to the hospital inside the doctor’s little black bag. In those first weeks Dad’s sisters would take turns holding him at night, resting their feet on the wood stove; heating their bodies, which would, in turn, heat his. When it was time for him to eat, they fed him with an eyedropper, and as Dad loved to say, “…now they use a funnel!”
It’s 7:40 a.m. and I’ve barely slept. I’ve been awake for twenty minutes, and out of bed for roughly six.
“There’s something wrong with you!” my Dad says, angrily jabbing his temple and glaring at me with every ounce of energy he can muster.
I’m tired. Too tired to start the day this way.
My Dad has dementia, and unfortunately, this is the new normal.
Caring for a Parent with Dementia
This morning he’s angry with me because although I say it’s morning, clearly I have lost my mind as it’s late afternoon — practically evening. I haven’t been tossing and turning in bed for hours and hours, I simply disappeared from the house for hours and hours.
I spend the next ten minutes explaining that it’s morning. I show him clocks around the house, the clock on his iPod, and even his watch. He isn’t arguing with me anymore, but that doesn’t mean he believes me. Instead, he shakes his head at me in disappointment and looks away. Conversation over.
And so begins another day — and hopefully, it’s a kiddie roller coaster kind of day, because the adult ones are way too intense.
Dementia is a cruel jerk. It steals the best of a person and replaces what it took with an overindulgent, angry, temperamental, funny, confused, toddler. It sounds harsh, but it’s true.
Gone is the man who helped bring me into the world.
Each day is a struggle.
As the disease progresses his speech becomes more basic. He no longer remembers brand names (with the exception of Pepsi) and uses colours and shapes to communicate what he wants. His favourite snacks are Zesty Doritos, and when he wants some he makes a triangle with his fingers and says “the orange ones”. When he wants shrimp, he shows me a hooked finger.
I’ve become very good at charades.
His mood swings happen, but thankfully they are not severe. I am so thankful that he is not violent or overly sexual (both are common side effects with dementia). Just periodically angry, annoyed, and paranoid — which can be either exhausting or entertaining, depending on the day. Most of the time he is receptive to requests and coaching, but there are days when he decides he is the only mentally sane person in the house, and we need to sit back, bite our tongues, and ride the day out.
I almost prefer the angry days to the confused days. When he’s angry he does his own thing, becomes a little more self-sufficient (gets his own drink from the fridge, grabs a small snack). It’s a nice break from having to constantly cater to him. Of course, this is also when he is most vocal. There is nothing quite like sitting down to dinner, seeing him turn up his nose, squinch his face, and exclaim, “What is this shit?!”, despite the fact that it’s a meal he has always loved.
He still eats it, but he will let me know he’s not happy about it.
After a confused day, I fall into bed at night, feeling like I haven’t slept in a week.
When he’s confused simple tasks become difficult. Asking him to change his pants sounds easy, but in reality, it takes four or five tries over a ten minute period to get the pants off, and then he gets confused, forgets, gets annoyed, and tries to put the same pants back on, and the whole process begins again.
This happens throughout the day, over and over. And over again. Pants. Lunch. Medication. Showering. It’s like trying to convince a two-year old that broccoli tastes like magic.
My favourite part of dementia (is it wrong to say that?) is the innocence. As the disease continues to cast a dark and impenetrable shadow over his mind, he has become more innocent. In a way, he is discovering things for the very first time. I love seeing his genuine smile and joy — even though he tends to get a little obsessed by new discoveries.
Last summer he discovered sliders (you know, the mini burgers?), and his excitement was through the roof. He told everyone, yes strangers too, about the sliders he ate. For months afterwards, he would wave his hands and arms around like they were magic wands and ask for ‘slippers’ (he forgot the word sliders) with a big smile on his face.
Of course, there is another side to the innocence. The side that can no longer handle violence or negativity. In recent weeks I’ve noticed how agitated he gets when he watches TV shows and movies that contain violence, sexuality, or negative messages. So now, we only watch old movies, comedy shows from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, or programs with animals (he loves anything with horses, dogs, or dolphins).
There are days when it is almost impossible not to laugh. Sometimes he’s being goofy on purpose, and sometimes it’s something he does or says. I no longer try to understand why he does certain things. It’s not worth getting him upset. Instead, I just go with the flow. Like when he told me his pants were a little wet, and I suggested he go upstairs to change. Instead of going upstairs, he went outside to sit on the porch. Okay, no problem. Twenty minutes later I go out to tell him his lunch is ready. He’s asleep. I wake him gently, he smiles and laughs. He had forgotten he was outside. He then proceeds to tell me, very proudly, that his pants are dry now because of the sun. Smiling, I tell him he’s done a good job and ask him to come in for lunch. Does this mean today’s anger is gone?! I need to go knock on some wood. It’s only lunchtime.
Probably one of the more difficult aspects of having a parent (or spouse) with dementia, is the public’s reaction — and sometimes a friend’s reaction.
My Dad has always loved children, wiggling his big ears, or taking out his false teeth. Anything to make a child smile or laugh. It’s something that parents found endearing and funny. Until now. Now he’s an old man who walks slow, has difficulty speaking, and doesn’t understand why people are shy around him. I recently took him to an ice cream shop where two kids were with their parents. He went to say hello and I groaned inwardly. His intentions were totally innocent. He said hello, then tried to give each of them a quarter. We didn’t know these kids, and while I knew his intentions, their parents were nervous and the looks of concern, nervousness, and pity that passed between them did not go unnoticed by myself.
Trying to stop him would have caused a scene as he wouldn’t understand why he was being discouraged, and I didn’t want his confusion to scare the kids. As soon as he gave them each a quarter, I lied said they were out of ice cream and we left.
I kick myself for not being able to handle people’s pity. The only thing that bothers me more than the pity, are empty questions.
“Does your Dad still know who you are?”, they ask.
“Yes”, I reply.
“Oh, that’s good!”, they respond.
To which I smile weakly. It’s one of the most frustrating and empty questions I’ve been asked. There is so much more to dementia than whether or not my Dad knows who I am. I’m caring for a man who raised me, but now has the mental capacity of a two-year-old. I’m cooking his meals, doing his laundry, helping to bathe him, coaching his behaviour, being his guardian and in a very twisted way, his mother. I’m standing with a smile or using a calm voice when he gets angry, yells at me, slaps my hands, or tells me I’m stupid. I’m his chauffeur, although he’d rather have his license back. But there is even more to it than that.
This man will never be able to walk me down the aisle. He will never be able to give me advice, or encouragement. If I’m lost, I can’t call him to come find me. He will never be able to travel anywhere with my Mom. Family vacations are now a thing of the past.
My Dad is physically here, but a piece of him disappears every single day. His deterioration is faster now. Every day matters, because tomorrow could be his last. This is my life while caring for a parent with dementia.
I will be the first to admit that my language learning has been slow. I do okay when I visit a restaurant or shop, but whenever someone engages me in a conversation I panic. I hear maybe two or three words, and I have absolutely no idea how to respond. If I’m eating out, I say ‘Oui’ in hopes that I have been asked a yes or no type question. While this most times, this is often a dead giveaway that I am anglo and the person I’m interacting with will either switch to English, or look confused and speak more French.
I look out my window and breathe deeply, taking in the view in front of me. For the last two months my view has been that of the parking lot, and the building beside mine – which was in such close proximity that anyone could see down into my apartment. But now, now is different. I’ve moved from the ground floor, to the fifth floor, and when I look out my window I can Château Frontenac to my left, and the steeples of Chalmers-Wesley United Church. I can see the curved tin and metal rooftops of buildings in my neighbourhood, tall wooden staircases, and one small patch of snow that refuses to accept that it is spring.
Welcome to my apartment in Quebec City, it’s early morning and I’m sitting on a galvanized metal chair in front of a slightly wobbly kitchen table (which is probably wobbly because I put it together and I don’t think I screwed in one of the legs all the way) waiting for a phone call to say that my sofa is outside and ready to be placed in my super small studio apartment.