Guest Post by Margaret Spence
My mother Ruth was sixty-nine when Alzheimer’s began its leisurely, vicious, search-and-destroy ransack of her brain. My father cared for her, more or less by himself, for the next ten years, until he was diagnosed with cancer, and died in five short months.
For a long time Dad denied there was anything seriously wrong with our mother. He began to cut up her food, reminding her to eat. Retired, he took over the household tasks with some relish at first, discovering a love of cooking. He made syrups of orange and lemon. Strips of lavender, wrapped neatly in bows of string, began to appear in the linen closets. Letting my mother lose control of the house, he seemed to discover another creative part of himself. For a time, his new delight in housekeeping allowed him to deny that she could no longer do the simplest tasks. When he woke up one winter night and found her no longer next to him, he roamed the neighborhood in terror. He found the next morning. Staring glassy-eyed at the house in front of her, she stood in the frozen dew.
After the diagnosis, I went to social services seeking help. They mentioned a day care program for Alzheimer’s patients, and Dad and I went to visit. A dozen or so elderly people sat in a circle and tossed a ball from one to the other. The director of the program, in thick foreign accent, explained that it was social time and also occupational therapy. My father was silent in the interview. Later he told me, “Your mother has a master’s degree! She won’t want to be with those people.”
Of course, he never asked her opinion, and she was far beyond giving it. And so, even though by this time my mother was further gone than the patients in the day program, my father insisted she stay home so he could care for her. He did rely on the kind woman who came to clean once a week, and remembered her in his will.
It was an achingly lonely life. Friends fell away. At night, after he’d put my mother to bed, Dad would watch television, a bottle of whiskey by his side.
Dad often said our mother was cheated of the last ten years of her life. He meant he was, as well. His devotion to Mother astounded people, and he took pride in it, I think. But I wanted him to find to find a place for Mum. A place close by so he could visit her every day, all day if he wanted, but could keep his own home as a place of refuge.
I wanted my father to give the rest of his family some of himself. His four children. His twelve grandchildren. To sell the big old house and buy a small one, so my brother could look in on him every day and I could come and care for him on my visits home. But my father always refused. Perhaps, at the beginning of the disease, my mother had begged him not to “put her away” and he had promised. He was nothing if not honorable, but honor could not save his own life or his wife’s.