It was somewhere in Texas, around 2005 or 06, that my dad pulled over to the side of the road and said to my step-mother, “I can’t do this anymore.” He never drove again. It was 2009 when, standing in the driveway of my sister’s house, that I finally realized he had dementia. I last saw him walk in August, 2011. A month later, he was in the hospital, felled by a series of mini-strokes. Still, six days after returning from a trip to the United Kingdom, you could carry on a lucid conversation with him. Three months later, in December of 2011, he was put into a nursing home, where, nearly four years on, he still lives. Lives, might be the wrong word, exists is a better one.
This is a collage of pictures my step-mother made for the staff at the nursing home. They love him and we love them for taking very good care of him. This was my dad, before Alzheimer’s robbed him of his abilities. It is a slow decent, it just doesn’t happen overnight.
The reason for this posting is the shit-storm that has been going on between George Will and Bill O’Reilly about O’Reilly’s book “Killing Reagan.” There are a number of hypothesis about Reagan’s descent into dementia and Alzheimer’s, but O’Reilly puts forth the theory that the assassination attempt in March of 1981 exasperated his symptoms and almost caused his staff to forcibly remove him from office shortly into his second term. But this isn’t about Will, the pompous twit that he is, or O’Reilly, that blowhard who is still pissed off about getting fired by CBS 30 years ago. Nor is this about Reagan, whom I found to be totally lacking in credibility even before becoming President.
It is about Alzheimer’s and its effects on not only the person afflicted with it, but the family and those around them. Friends, neighbors and total strangers. Since 1968, my dad has lived in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, with my step-mother, Ann, a farmer’s daughter from Manitoba. I had just turned 10 when they got married. I was attending boarding school in North Dakota at the time and would until 1974, when my mother remarried and my step-father said “you’re going to ‘normal school.'” Whatever that was.
My dad wasn’t much of a father. But he did teach me how to be loyal. An intangible trait, perhaps, but it has served me well in my 57 years. After all, his best friend was a man of dubious character for many years. I have many friends of dubious character. But I’m loyal to them.
Alzheimer’s is a cruel affliction. It takes away your cognitive skills and then your essence. In the first months following his paralysis, he could carry on a conversation, he knew who you were and where he was. Early on, he asked Ann, “when are we going home?” Since then, his cognition has gone down to the point of where he talks very little and there are days when he says nothing.
Alzheimer’s knows what its’ doing. As us Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers get older, it will happen to us, too. That we have spent billions on pills like Viagra, yet Alzheimer’s research is a fraction of that, is, to pardon the expression, mind-blowing. Which is exactly what Alzheimer’s does, it blows up your mind and scatters it to the four winds.
Someone once said “getting old isn’t for wimps.” There’s a lot of truth to that statement. But no one, not my dad, grandfather, Sargent Shriver or Ronald Reagan, should spend their final years in a descending fog into nothingness, not remembering spouses, children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Will and Bill O’s sniping over Reagan’s condition does a grand disservice to us all, because it mocks those of us who have to live with it every damn day.
There is one more picture I’d like to share with you. It is a picture taken by my niece, Bianca, of my dad and his great-granddaughter, Dalis…She is looking at him and he is looking at my niece, who took the picture. It is a picture of a 16-month-old girl who will grow up hearing stories of her grandpa Ric and hopefully will live in a world where Alzheimer’s is a thing of the past.