“The Gift”

At a speaking engagement in 2004 I characterized the upcoming period of time from 2005 to 2010 as the “Age of Transition”.  There were a number of reasons for my assertion, the most notable being the embracing and dependence on technology by the masses worldwide, the erosion of the middle class and the beginnings of global challenges in economic stability.

 

On the North American front, we were also being challenged by an aging population who, in addition to relinquishing their authority to a new regime, were requiring more care and assistance.  This came of personal relevance to me on December 28, 2005.

 

Just back from visiting my Dad in Toronto for Christmas, I received a phone call from him.  He informed me that he just had a stroke that day.  He followed up by saying that he was back at home and was waiting for the results from his doctor.  What he was most upset about was that they had temporarily taken his driver’s license away.

 

Early in the New Year we received the results – he had suffered a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA).  Also called a mini-stroke, a TIA is due to a temporary lack of adequate blood and oxygen (ischemia) to the brain. This is often caused by the narrowing (or, less often, ulceration) of the carotid arteries (the major arteries in the neck that supply blood to the brain).  These often arise in smokers of which my Dad was one.  He quit cold turkey that day.

 

During the next month it became apparent to my Dad’s significant other of seventeen years that he was experiencing memory loss.  Given her physical frailties, she informed me that it would be impossible for her to look after him and asked if I would fly to Toronto and take him back to Vancouver with me.

 

My decision was an easy one.  It was based on a letter to me from my mother, discovered a few days after her death in 1986 from cancer.  The last line simply said, “Please look after your Dad…”

 

In mid February of 2006 I flew to Toronto, rounded up Dad’s belongings, made the appropriate arrangements and flew back to Vancouver with Dad in tow.

 

Dad was a little bewildered by what was going on and didn’t quite understand why he had to leave his beloved Toronto.  Back in Vancouver, I soon realized that he needed daily care and I could not leave him alone.  In addition to getting lost going to the store by himself, I had to help him each day with a review of rote routines (e.g. taking a shower, shaving, getting dressed, etc.).

 

In early March of 2006, we were able to get my Dad residency in an independent care facility.  Best described, it was a cruise ship without the water and the meals were fantastic.  My Dad put 20 lbs back on within six months.

 

Like all newcomers to a care facility, Dad took a while to adjust but quickly got into a routine.  I made it a habit to visit him regularly – everyday when I could.  These visitations aided my Dad in coping with isolation and loneliness.  He always greeted me with a smile.

 

It was by doing this that I received “The Gift” – reconnecting with my Dad and his sense of humour. 

 

I was blessed as a child in that I grew up in an “Ozzie & Harriet” environment.  Like “Ozzie & Harriet”, we were a small family – Dad, mom, my younger brother, Allan and myself.  I remember one day, all of us sitting around and laughing about how we could have been rich if only Allan could sing & write like Ricky Nelson.

 

I recounted that story to Dad one day in his “new home”.  It was great to see him laugh and smile.  From then on, laughter and humour became “job one”.  What follows are some of those special moments that arose during Dad’s days in Vancouver.

 

Dad never conceded that it he was happy to live in Vancouver.  Going back to Toronto when he got better was one of his goals.  When first asked what he liked about Vancouver, he said, “The only thing I like about living here is that the Blue Jays play three hours earlier!”

 

During his first two months at the care facility, Dad got lost over at a nearby shopping mall where he would go to buy lottery tickets.  Three young girls brought him home.  When I quizzed him about it, he said, “Not bad eh, three girls walked me home.”  I then asked, “Did you get their phone numbers?”  He paused and said, “You know I really am losing it.”

 

In addition to his gradual memory loss, Dad’s eyesight was also failing.  So we went out and bought a big digital clock for his wall.  After we put it up one afternoon, I said, “What do you think?”  He said, “That’s great.  I can read it from my bed.  It says 42B.”  Translation – 42B was 4:28!

 

Although I handled all his finances, Dad was accustomed to having money in his wallet.  To that end, he initially carried a $100 around with him.  We soon discovered that he could not make change and couldn’t account for monies spent here and there.  Yet what was amazing was that he could still play “Blackjack” with the best of them.

 

For a period of about a year and half, I would take Dad for an outing to the casino and we would play Blackjack for an hour or so.  He liked to play “third base” which is the last seat closest to the dealer.  I often got the seat beside him.

 

Ask my Dad to add sixteen plus seven plus nine, he was clueless.  Ask him whether he wanted a card based on what the dealer was showing, he would come up with the right answer every time.

 

It was during one of our Blackjack outings that he had me in tears of laughter.  While playing and after enjoying a diet coke, my Dad let out a resounding belch that got the attention of everyone seated at the table.  Sarcastically, I said to my Dad, “Geez, did you lose a lung?” I got some smiles and chuckles from fellow players.  Not to be outdone, my Dad brought the house down by simply turning to me and saying, “What did you expect … chimes?”

 

It was also during Dad’s first year of independent living at the care facility that he was approached to assist in a video on the needs of the elderly with a focus on companionship, preserving dignity and emotional support.  When asked if he would participate, he said, “No problem, as long as they pay well.”

 

As time went on my Dad’s health and memory continued to weaken.  Trips to the casino and Nat Bailey Stadium became less frequent and his appetite declined.  However, he still managed to put a smile on the faces of the staff, residents and visitors.  For three straight years he dressed up on St. Patrick’s Day and on Halloween – once as Groucho Marx, once as an Hawaiian tourist and finally, as Elvis Presley (although he looked more like Roy Orbison thanks to his black framed glasses).

 

Dressing up for things like Halloween was somewhat out of character for my relatively conservative Dad.  Growing up as a kid, I can’t really recall him doing or experiencing something out of the ordinary.  What I can recall is him remembering every meal he ever had and consistently tying eating in with his storytelling.

 

That’s why his decision to walk the Capilano Suspension Bridge in 2007 surprised me.  He made the whole walk, requiring some assistance in getting off the platform at completion.  When quizzed about his experience at Capilano, he caught everyone off guard by replying, “It was a nice day and the hotdog was pretty good”.  Some things just don’t change.

 

He caught one of the female residents off guard one day when he replied to a question she asked of him.  Dad was staring outside at the courtyard of the care facility when she asked, “Say Bert, what’s it like out?”  Dad replied, “I don’t know, I haven’t had it out yet.”

 

If I threw out a barb at him that got his attention, he would come back at me with a Jackie Gleason line from the ‘Honeymooners’ TV Show … “You’re a riot Alice”.

 

He had his unintentional moments too.  One day he phoned me and proclaimed that the door to his room was missing.  For some inexplicable reason I blurted out, “Check the hinges”.  He replied “Okay” and left me on the line for what seemed like an eternity.  Eventually, he came back to the phone and said, “I found it [the door]” and hung up.

 

On another occasion he phoned me to say that he had lost his glasses and had looked everywhere.  I instructed him to hit the assistance button on the phone and someone would come and help him.  He subsequently phoned back and said, “We found them.  They were in the mirror on my face.  I will check the mirror from now on before I call anyone.  Bye.”

 

Some of the most enjoyable times at the care facility were during the holiday season.  My Dad got a big kick out of the entertainment that was provided, especially the children’s choirs who always had time to put on a show for the residents during Christmas.  One Christmas, during one of the shows, I asked him, “So Dad, what do you want for Christmas?”  Dad immediately replied, “Mrs. Claus”.

 

With his medical status always in the forefront, Dad and I would attend various appointments outside of the care facility.  One trip that we made every 6 months was to a skin care specialist who tended to some sun damaged areas on Dad’s face and arms.  During one visit it was agreed that Dad should have one the lesions on his wrist removed.  He was put in a doctor’s chair for the operation and given local freezing.  He got through the operation but complained bitterly about how much it hurt.  Taking on a support role during the procedure, I applauded him on how well he was doing, saying, “You’re doing good Dad, you’re doing good.”  After the third time I said this, he looked at me and said,

“You remind me of the trainer for a boxer who kept saying after each round, ‘You’re doing good, you’re doing good.  He never laid a glove on you’.  As the boxer, whose face was swollen, went out for the fourth round, he turned to his trainer and said, ‘Keep your eye on the referee because somebody’s beating the shit out of me’.”

The doctor working on his wrist almost fell over.

 

In mid 2008, after taking him back on a short trip to Toronto to reconnect with old friends, it soon became apparent that we needed to do some further testing on his progressive dementia.  In the fall of that year, Dad went through a series of tests that indicated he had mid-to-severe Alzheimer’s disease.  Despite the gravity of the situation, it had its lighter moments. It was tougher on the family than Dad because Dad didn’t really know what was going on. 

 

Aside from almost breaking the physician’s fingers, Dad really caught this doctor off guard during the oral testing when asked to do the following:  “Mr. Locke, for the next 30 seconds, I want you to say as many words as you can that begin with the letter ‘f’”.  Dad replied, “Can I swear?”  Stunned, the physician replied, “I guess so”.

 

As a result of Dad’s level of dementia, we were encouraged to pursue extended care as soon as possible.  This meant moving Dad to a government care facility and going through a registration and assessment process.  It was during the assessment process that Dad relieved some of my angst with some humour.  In his assessment interview with the social worker, Dad was asked what he had done during his career.  Dad gave a one word reply … “steal”.  The social worker did not pick up on the humour and took the high road by asking if he meant that he had worked in construction.  Dad turned to me and just winked.  He still had it.

 

In January 2009, a bed became available for Dad at an extended care facility, which was just five minutes away for me by car.  This is where Murphy’s Law kicked in.

 

I got the call that the bed was available for Dad on Wednesday January 14.  Once you receive a call on availability you have 48 hours to accept and have the designated party in the facility.  I said, “No problem.  We’re in and Dad would be there Friday morning”.  Ironically, I just had knee surgery on the previous Friday and was on crutches.  You should have seen the faces on the ‘welcoming committee’ as we walked through the door, me on crutches and Dad with his cane.  Until I opened my mouth, I am convinced that they did not know which person they were admitting.

 

Despite my hobbling, I was in pretty good spirits when we arrived at the extended care facility.  Again, it was thanks to Dad.  As we were driving in on somewhat of a chilly morning I turned on our car seat heaters.  After a couple of minutes, I said, “What do you think of the heaters?  Are you warm?”  Dad responded with, “Now that my balls have thawed out … yes.”

 

Dad blended in at the extended care facility a lot faster than I anticipated but that may have been a product of his advancing dementia.  He enjoyed the fact that they had a happy hour everyday and was allowed to attend it so he could have his cherished, “Diet Coke”.  It was also nice to see the nurses and attendants responding to him so positively.

 

Dad was confined to one floor but that didn’t stop him losing his comb, cane and glasses on a daily basis.  There were forty-four rooms on the floor and as long as they had a bed, they were fair game as far as Dad was concerned.  He was found sleeping in many of them.

 

An outbreak of the flu and subsequent quarantine for approximately ten days kept us out of contact.  This combined with some dreams Dad was having led him to believe for a period of time that he had done something wrong and was in jail.

 

At one stage, during his dreaming episodes, he became convinced that he had killed me.  I was made aware of this revelation and went to see him.  He looked at me and said, “What are you doing here?  I killed you with my cane.”  I replied, “Well I hate to break it to you but it’s me … Tom”.  He smiled and said, “Thank God.  I feel better now.”  I then said, “You’ve got to stop eating pizza after 10:00 pm.”  He smiled again and said, “You’re a riot, Alice.”

 

Dad’s wandering from room to room, soon caught up with him.  In late May of 2009, he had an innocent altercation with another resident in their room.  Dad fell and broke his hip.  He was rushed to St. Paul’s Hospital.

 

Eventually, he had hip replacement surgery and was scheduled for rehab.  The pain of the surgery, full blown Alzheimer’s and a loss of appetite left him weak, confused and very doubtful as to being able to walk again.

 

Realizing his resistance to eating, the attending staff at the hospital got him on a fluid diet with an emphasis on protein shakes.  One day after eating a little and drinking a shake, he seemed to be having a lucid moment.  We asked, “Hey Bert, what’s new?”  Without hesitation, he replied, “Brunswick”.  I can’t tell you what that short retort did for me.  He was still trying in his own way.

 

Dad returned to the extended care facility in June and was placed on palliative care.  He passed away peacefully on July 16, 2009.

 

In preparation for a celebration of Dad’s life, I have been reflecting on the last three and half years of care giving.  This experience has further instilled in me how precious life is and not to sweat the small stuff.  One of the ornaments on Dad’s Christmas tree said it all, “Eat dessert first, life’s uncertain”.

 

In closing, be sensitive to the value of relationships.  Should you choose to enhance them, I urge you to abide by the words of the late Victor Borge who said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”  That’s why I know my Dad will always be beside me. 

 

Tom Locke, A Grateful Son

July 17, 2009