The Marketing manager is a model of matter-of-fact efficiency, as one by one, she hands me a plethora of papers to sign, providing me with a snapshot summary of what each paper contains.
I slowly shake my head no.
Do Not resuscitate order?
My head keeps shaking no. The marketing manager sits back and tries to hide a startled look. Exasperated, she asks:
Power of attorney?
I assure her that both my sister and I have full power of attorney, and she seems to relax at that.
This was the verbal exchange that occurred while signing the paperwork for my father’s admission to a rehabilitation center, which was needed after yet another hospitalization. My 83-year-old father has dementia. He can remember things that happened a lifetime ago like it was yesterday, but he often can’t remember yesterday at all. A little while ago he had another “episode” that landed him in the hospital, somewhat further confused.
When first admitted to the hospital, he could not remember what had happened. I reminded him that “you were at your assisted living home and were bowling and became dizzy, and then couldn’t move your legs. The ambulance took you to the hospital.” A far away and distant look came over him and he said “I don’t remember.” “You were bowling dad,” I reminded him, trying to trigger his memory. My father always had a competitive streak. After a long pause, he got to the heart of the matter and piped up “Did I win?”
At the hospital he retold stories of his past. His language was garbled. My father can’t always use accurate words to tell a story. We don’t always know what he is saying. But he seems to know what he is saying. And often that is enough. We listened with rapt attention, as he wove a marathon of disconnected stories of his past together, with his hands flailing and his words flying. When it was all over, with a sudden twinkle in his eyes, he sat back with a smile and said: “Oh, that was fun!”
My father, for almost all of his life, was an athlete. But when walking with him now, his spine is bent forward and I keep thinking that he is going to topple over. I keep one hand on his frail elbow and hold my other hand in his. He’ll tell me “I really am okay to walk on my own you know.” But his actions betray the words he speaks, as his hand clutches onto mine even more tightly.
My father needs this time in life. And we, his children, need it too. We need to glimpse into his past days, as he journeys backward. We need to show him love, as best as we can. We need to offer up our prayers for him. This time is useful. It is valuable. For everything there is a season, and this winter season of my father’s life is part of what will help guide his soul into eternity.
Dad, through his dementia is working out his salvation. He isn’t doing that the way his children wanted him to do it. He isn’t doing that the way he wanted to do it. He is doing it the way God has deemed that he must do it. “…unless you become like little children, you will not ender the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt: 18:3) With each passing month, my father grows more humble and more childlike, more dependent and more trusting and I do not doubt, closer to our Lord and to Heaven.
It is hard to authorize living wills and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders in advance because every medical situation is different, as is every patient. Each situation needs to be judged at the time by a loving family, in consultation with a trusted priest. It can be imprudent for one to prematurely judge a medical condition. It’s also a way to end up dead before one’s time. And we want our dad here for as long as God allows.
Dementia is a process of detachment. Those afflicted with it gradually lose touch with everything and everyone around them. For people with dementia, it seems at times that there is nothing to hold onto—except God. But that’s the One the dying need to cling to most.
It is untrue that when life grows difficult or weary, or when one’s mind begins to fail, that life stops having any meaning. It is precisely at these times that life may begin to gather moments that are sweet. It is precisely at these times, when the body and the mind begin to fail, that life may take on its greatest meaning for the soul. This season of life is of great value not just for the soul, but for the family, and to our Lord. Its impact will carry into all eternity. We are quite wise not to cut it short.