As I begin writing this, Denny* is sitting at the dining table, rubbing the back of a spoon over the entire surface of the rooster-adorned placemat before him. He began this immediately after finishing the butterscotch pudding I gave him several minutes ago. I’m not going to stop him or try to ask him why he’s doing such a strange thing, because he won’t even understand what I’m asking him, let alone be able to explain his actions.
For over a year now I’ve been spending my Saturdays with Denny. I haven’t really written about it, other than a one or two line comment on facebook when he does something that would be funny, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s not trying to be funny at all, and he truly does not understand that one does not wear a folded blanket as a hat, or fill plates with water and set them around on the tables and floor. When I’m with him, it’s best if I don’t think too much about how sad it all is, or I’d be in tears the whole time, making matters worse.
Denny was a vital, hard-working man. Years ago, he started a business that’s still in operation and employing people. That was his life. At 86, even after years of the effects of Alzheimers, it’s easy to observe the habits he ingrained in himself so long ago. Even when you’re losing your grip on what is going on around you, and even on who you are, apparently there are things that stick with you. What has stayed with Denny is his work ethic. He barely sits down. He has a sense that he needs to be somewhere else, to do something vitally important, but if you ask him, he cannot explain further. All you get is a “Come on, we’ve got to go” response. It’s a vague sense of urgency to be working at…something.
Some Saturdays, Denny talks almost constantly, usually without actually saying anything comprehensible. At times, he’ll only use pronouns – lots of Hims and Theys and Up There/Over Theres, and mostly only partial sentences on top of that. A myriad of words that aren’t really conversation. When he seems to want an answer, I try to give whatever response seems least likely to upset him. Truth is irrelevant. If he wants to go out to the field where he is convinced his mother is working, it will serve no purpose to tell him that no, his mother died a long time ago. When he’s gotten something wrong, it’s counter-productive to try to correct him: most of the time he won’t remember, if he even understands what you’re saying in the first place. Sometimes, all it does is get him upset, and his lower lip starts quivering, just before the tears come.
When you’re with a victim of dementia, patience is essential. Endless repetitions of What Day Is It? and No, you didn’t miss church, because church is tomorrow morning, and When Is The Other Girl Coming Back. The Other Girl is his daughter. And sometimes she’s That Fellow, because Denny not only doesn’t remember his daughter’s name, or that she IS his daughter, he often doesn’t remember that she’s female. Denny does the same with me. He seems surprised if I mention my husband – because he thinks I’m a man, even though there is obvious physical evidence to the contrary. He has no idea what my name is, but each time I arrive, he seems to have a sense that I’m a person he’s supposed to know.
Denny wants to go upstairs now, to feed the chickens he raised as a boy. He’s convinced they’re living in the upstairs of the house, and nobody’s given them food or water today. A few months ago, he was upset because he knew his father would soon be home with the pigs and he didn’t have a place ready to put them. He was trying to get into a locked basement closet to get it ready for the pigs. I found out later that Denny raised prize-winning pigs as a young man, and used them to try to impress a girl. She wasn’t impressed, but she married him anyway a while later. They’re still married, but he has no idea who she is, most of the time. At times, he’ll ask about his wife, and other times, he’ll insist he’s not married yet. He’s still a young man at those times.
I don’t know if I’ll write any more about Denny. Most of the time I try not to think about what is happening to him and why, and how it will end. I do know I don’t want to be like this near the end of my life, and I sincerely hope that my body goes before my mind.
*Even though I’m only using a first name, I’ve changed it to protect the family’s privacy completely. I chose to use Denny as a tribute to a character excellently portrayed by William Shatner on Boston Legal. Prior to the timeframe of the show, Denny Crane was a lawyer known and feared by all, but during the show his mental faculties are slowly deteriorating, most likely due to the early stages of Alzheimers, although he insists it’s Mad Cow. (If anyone is still insisting that William Shatner can’t act, they probably haven’t seen him in this role for which he received not one, but two Emmy awards and a Golden Globe.)