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I am your son.

Looking back, one of the first signs that my father had Alzheimer's disease came the day he lost his car. For some, not remembering where they parked their car is a common occurrence. For my father, a man with a most precise sense of direction, it was unthinkable.

Other "little" things began to happen, leading eventually to a full checkup. After ruling out everything else, the doctor told us he was sure it was Alzheimer's.

In those days before support groups and mass publicity, I had heard of the disease but knew little about it.

I came to know a great deal.

For four years my father continued to live at home, his life slowly changing. My mother's loving care and concern for him was all that made this possible. As the only one of the children living in town, I shared with her many of the burdens and privileges of those years.

Early on it was apparent that he could no longer drive; I volunteered to be the one to tell him that. My father had once been a traveling salesman; he had traversed the entire northwestern United States by car in the 1920s. He was the best driver I have ever known. After he retired, his car had been his vehicle of freedom from the house; driving meant a great deal to him.

I told him very simply that he could no longer drive. I explained to him that he could get lost and that he was a danger on the road to himself and to others. He looked at me and asked, "Do you think that is the best?" I said "Yes," and he said "OK." It was almost as if he were relieved.

Some months later, when I was driving him someplace, he said to me, "You know, son, I used to drive a car."

"Is that right?"

"Yes, I was quite a driver. But the government won't allow me to drive anymore for national security reasons. Sometimes you have to sacrifice for your country." The subject was never mentioned again.

At one point, my mother and I read "the books"--tomes on what to expect in Alzheimer's patients. We had both resisted reading the books because we wanted to retain our innocence as long as possible.

The books were frightening, yet strangely comforting. After reading them, we sensed we were not alone, that other people had gone through this. Each new piece of aberrant behavior could now fit into a context-- knowledge had replaced our fear.

My mother created a new way of treating my father, and she and I used a specific technique. She would daily, hourly, reassure my father that he was going to be safe, cared for, that he was going to be fine. I reinforced all she said.

We told him that he had an illness that made him confused, but that there was nothing to worry about--he would always be cared for. In the early days, when in rational moments he asked what was wrong with him, we would tell him simply and clearly. Later he never asked.

My father always loved to walk. Each day since his retirement he had walked the 11 blocks to the church for a visit, then walked home. In healthy times, he would go and return by various routes that gave him many miles of walking each day.

As he became more disoriented, it was obvious that his walking could get him lost. More than once he did get lost. But because he could no longer do much of what he loved to do, Mom did not want him to lose his precious walking time, too.

Her solution was two-fold. First of all, we walked with him over and over directly to the church and back, reminding him of the importance of making the one tom. We hoped that if he took only this route, he would be less likely to lose his way.

Secondly, we bought Dad an I.D. bracelet with his name and phone number on it along with the information that he could be disoriented. I showed him how to go to a stranger's home, ring the doorbell, and show people the bracelet. The neighborhood is safe, and many people knew him already. Some neighbors along the route even watched for him.

The critical point was the turn. If he missed that, then he would head the opposite direction. We also had friends along that street, and they watched for him, too. If they saw him, they would walk him back to the corner and set him on the road home.

For almost three years, as he gradually became much more disoriented, he continued his walk. He got lost a few times, but someone would either call or bring him home. He used his bracelet at least five times. I was proud of him.

Inevitably, something happened and he was hospitalized. When he came out of the hospital, he went into a nursing home. Mom could no longer care for him. Although she knew it was right, she tried to fight the decision.

The home had just opened a new special section for Alzheimer's patients. It was clean, bright, healthy, with a kind and caring staff. He accepted his new home instantly and came to enjoy the attentions of all the women patients.

Mom visited almost every day. I went two or three times a week, finding him in the recreation room, and would walk in and sit beside him.

"Hi, Dad."

He would look up, stare expressionlessly at me for a few seconds and then say, "Hello."

"I am your son. I have come to take you for a walk."

"That's very nice." He would slowly get up out of the chair and we would head outdoors.

The conversation ranged from the trees to the flowers to the family and back to the trees. We had decided to always share all the family news with him and use all the names of his brothers and sisters, children, and grandchildren. I would tell him all the things my mother had told him the day before and would tell him again tomorrow.

One day as we rested on a bench, he asked me, "Do I have a wife?"

I told him his wife's name and that she came to see him almost every day.

"Do I have any children?"

I told him about each of his children and explained that I was one of them, that 1 was his son.

"You are my son?"

"Yes, Dad, I am your son."

For the first time in many months I saw just a hint of a smile and he said, "Well I must have done something right in life to have such a nice young man as you be my son."

Ten minutes later, when I said good-bye to him, he did not know who I was.

During the five years of his illness he was almost always pleasant, never violent, never disagreeable. As difficult as it was for all of the family, we were grateful that we were spared part of the hell that many Alzheimer's families must endure.

He died quite suddenly and peacefully.

I have seen many people in caskets, and I went to see Dad without any special thoughts in mind except the upcoming funeral and concerns about my mother.

But an extraordinary thing happened when I looked at my father. The man lying there was not the person I had visited in the nursing home. It was not the confused gentleman I had helped care for during the past five years. It was my father, my father of before.

The vacant look that had become such a part of him was gone, replaced by the sleeping face of the vibrant, formidable figure I had known all of my life. It was as if my dad had been gone for a long time and had returned just in time for his burial.

All children have unique relationships with their parents, and all sons have unique relationships with their fathers. Ours was no different. There had been triumphs and tragedies between us. But there was a special bonding, a special form of self-knowledge that was mine when I would say to him, "I am your son." It not only told him who I was, but it also reminded me.

As I looked at Dad in the casket, I knew I no longer needed to tell him. He knew on his own who I was. But I was also someone different from the son he had known before--his illness had improved me.
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Title Annotation:father with Alzheimer's disease
Author:Faucher, W. Thomas
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:1441
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