When you have a parent with dementia, you have to find ways to ignore the sadness of it now and then. You have to put it aside to focus on other things. And you can. And you do. Because it’s not all sadness. Or it doesn’t have to be. Some of it is rather beautiful. We learn a lot about mind and memory and the sanctity of the person. A lot.
My dad’s ability to retain short term memories, follow a train of thought, progress along logical steps, is severely limited now. My Naval Captain father, that is. At the height of his mental faculties, Dad was a man who could figure out how anything worked, see what was coming on the horizon, learn from what was behind him. He was wise, and funny, bright and charming. A big thinker. A great storyteller. Also in many ways a belligerant, fastidious, single-minded, unbudgable… officer. Who do I resemble? Yep. Pretty much.
His mind doesn’t work the way it used to. It works in a different way now. But Dad’s personality is completely intact. His preferences for introversion, for thinking through problems, for figuring out his world, for fixing things, and for contributing to his environment, helping his family, all of that Dadness is completely intact.
I call my time with Dad enforced Buddhism. It’s a time when I must be in the Now. There’s really no choice in the matter. We sit, and look around at our present world and each other. And we talk about that. Not yesterday, not so much about tomorrow. We just look at and talk about what is. Maybe while listening to great music. Eating great food.
When my dad was a young boy, he was overweight. Quite overweight, judging by the photos. He remained overweight until he was in his teens, when he took it upon himself to do something about it. One summer, he exercised like crazy, and with the help of his new step-mother, a stern doctor with a strong preference for whole foods, he dropped all his extra weight and got into great shape, a shape he maintained all his life by carefully monitoring his weight and his food, and exercising regularly.
My mom died several months ago, moving my Dad into a much more sedentary lifestyle. Mom kept him hopping from task to task, chore to chore, working hard to keep him out of his chair. She monitored his food for him, and kept an eye on his waistline.
Mourning food, food his kids bring him, snacks, teas, extra calories and a lot less exercise over the past several months have put a new roll around Dad’s middle. A new pants size.
And here’s the thing: Dad can’t easily regulate what he eats. The kid is back, intact. Dad loves food. Especially desserts. Especially donuts. We had some donuts in the house (I know, I know) this past holiday weekend. He ate one or two. Then we left the donuts on a plate in the kitchen (I know, I know). I went out to work on the yard, and when I returned, half of the donuts were gone. I went back out to work, and when I came back, all of the donuts were gone. Some went to other people who filtered through the place that day. I had more than I intended to (which was none, but man…) but I fear most of them went into Dad. I’ve known him to eat a whole jar of cookies overnight. He had no memory of it. Just a roll forming over his pants.
Hunger doesn’t enter into the picture where Dad’s eating is concerned these days. If it’s there, in front of him, and he likes it, he eats it. He doesn’t remember whether he’s eaten, so he might eat again. He sometimes agrees to go out for a meal with family or friends after already eating that meal. Tell him you’re picking him up for breakfast, and he’ll eat breakfast first.
Am I so different from Pop? I might recall having eaten a jar of cookies in one night, but do I remember everything I put into my mouth? Not really. Not unless I write it down. And though I try to write it all down, I’m not perfect. So much of my eating around my house can be completely mindless. Too much conversation happens in the kitchen, around food that’s just there, on the counter. A lot of people drop by. I put more food out. I don’t remember.
The only saving grace in Dad’s diet is structure. He lives in a highly structured environment when he’s not living with me. If it’s 2 p.m., it’s past lunch, so he knows he’s eaten and it’s not time to eat again. If it’s 5 p.m., it’s time for dinner. Every day. The clock. Calories are available only when they’re available.
For my Dad’s sake as well as mine, I need to reprogram my house, not leave the empty calories around between meals. Keep to regular mealtimes. Not eat between them. Talk to people in another room of the house, perhaps?
The clock. The clock could be my friend. You think?