I’m sitting in a loose circle of chairs in a small classroom. This classroom is in one of the largest churches I’ve ever seen. It took me five minutes to find the front entrance and I had to ask someone for directions to the room. Around me sit a group of men and women, all of them older than me. They each take a turn introducing themselves and saying a little bit about why they are there. The circle gets to me and everyone turns. I take a deep breath.
“Hi. Um. My name is Erin, and my dad was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. We are placing him in a memory care facility next week and, well, I’m not doing well.” With this, my chin quivers and suddenly I am sobbing in this room of strangers, all of whom know exactly what I’m feeling. They’ve all been there in some form or another. I am not alone.
Alzheimer’s is one of those diseases that people primarily associate with the very old. It’s referred to as “Old-Timer’s” for a reason. Lately though, people are being diagnosed earlier and earlier. Most likely, it’s because science has come pretty far and the signs are clearer much earlier. It’s not dismissed as “Grandma’s just getting senile.” anymore. The problem (for me at least) is that with this earlier diagnoses, people (again, like me) are dealing with the fallout from the disease earlier in life than ever expected.
The disease is progressive and insidious. It steals away your past at the same time it’s stealing your future. It takes away your ability to walk, to talk, to chew. It takes your memories, your ability to remember to eat, your balance, and your ability to be rational. At the same time that I am losing my father in the present, I am losing any memories he has of my mother, of my childhood, of a large chunk of my life.
When I was in the group, one of the women said “I feel like I’m grieving for someone who’s still alive.” This shook me. I didn’t have words for how I felt until she described that. I’ve been going through the stages of grief, but continuously for six years. Each time the disease progresses, I start over again. I will grieve every time something changes until I grieve for the final time. I spend a lot of time in the denial stage. I’m excellent at denial. I’m working through anger right now. I won’t bother with bargaining.
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I’m sitting in the memory care facility where we will be leaving my dad, shortly. His room is moved in, his recliner and his TV are set up. His walls are covered in family pictures, plaques from his time in the Navy and University of Georgia Bulldogs swag. His clothes are in the closet.
We’ve met the director, the staff and taken the tour. We’ve had lunch in the dining room and seen their grounds and the way their security works. Right now, the residents and my family are gathered in one of the sitting areas listening to one of the staff members give a presentation on Naval Submarines and bi-planes because a lot of the residents are retired military. Because this is a fairly new facility, there is only a small amount of residents currently. This makes me feel better somehow, like the less residents, the more the staff will be involved with them.
I’m terrified to leave. I don’t know if he will understand what’s happening or why we’re leaving. I keep having flashbacks to when my dad dropped me off at boarding school as a freshman. I was scared, angry and felt abandoned, even though, deep down I knew that boarding school was the best place for me to be. I hope he understands that we’re not abandoning him. I hope he’s not scared when he goes to sleep tonight. I hope he knows we still love him.