February 11, 2019 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Dementia and my father. 

Not long after my father turned 80, he developed symptoms of dementia. “Vascular dementia,” we were told, “nothing can be done.” After struggling at home alone for a year or so, he was given room in a small residence on Vancouver Island that specializes in care for early-stage Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. He was there for six years until he deteriorated past the stage at which they could care for him. I moved him to Langley in 2017.

Sitting across from him at the Cedar Hill Center where he now resides, Mel Young remains my dad on the outside. A face that sometimes seems younger than his eighty-nine years is topped by a shock of wavy white hair that is usually brushed. He shaves every day. He insists on a buttoned shirt and he dislikes the “hip-saver” padded sweat pants that the facility staff want him to wear, preferring khakis. At first glance, he looks good for his age and retains the urge to maintain his outward appearance. He still smiles and cares. He asks how things are at home or inquires about my ex-wife, even though I’ve lived alone for over 6 years.

Despite his ability to maintain a social veneer when I’m there, I know that he often gets lost in the facility, becomes angry and frustrated with the staff over little things, butts heads with his room-mates, feels abandoned by his family, and is generally confused. He needs a walker to get around but his primary disability is in his brain. His short-term memory is sixty seconds or less and his mid- and long-term memories are fading. He remembers me but some days it takes him a long moment and a hard stare to recall my name, even though I see him every couple of days.

I feel guilty admitting that visits are a chore because we can’t talk about the news or our shared past experiences. Mentioning family either draws blank stares, because he doesn’t remember my kids or grandchildren or sadness and disbelief when he “learns” that my mother died twenty-five years ago and he wonders why no one told him that he is the last of his brothers and sisters left alive. My method of coping with long silences punctuated by repetitive questions is to suggest a game of crib at nearly every visit.

When I was 12 or 13 my father agreed to teach me the game of cribbage. I pestered him to let me join in after watching him for years with his friends. As the eldest of four sons, I often preferred to hang out with Dad and the adults rather than my younger brothers. The game and their chatter fascinated me. I’m not sure when Dad learned the game but I know he spent hours in front of a crib board in his 20’s and 30’s on the hydrographic survey ship, William J. Stewart, in the Forest Service road construction camps, and on the Forest Service landing craft he skippered up and down the south coast in the early 1960s.

It is not a simple or straightforward game containing several layers and nuances, from deciding which two cards to throw into the crib (depending on whether the extra hand is yours or the opponents), how to maximize your pegging points, and then how to count the points in your hand. Dad also played “cut-throat” which meant that if I didn’t correctly count all the points in my hand, and he spotted them, they were his. He was an excellent player and it must have been frustrating to teach me both the basics and the tricks, but I eventually caught on to it.

He always agrees to a game but adds, “I haven’t played for years. I’m not sure I remember how.” There are many things that he forgets, like how many cards to deal, the colour of his pegs, and in which direction to move them. After dealing six cards each, I wait a few moments before reminding him to throw two cards into the crib.

“I don’t want to,” he responds with a petulant inflection and a chuckle. He will repeat the joke with every hand and I will be tired of it by the end of the game.

“I know,” is my standard reply, “you never do,” doing my best to play along.

He finally chooses a couple of discards and, after cutting the deck and turning over the top card, we begin to play. He usually remembers that fifteens and pairs score but struggles to recall that each round only goes to 31. Even simple math is becoming difficult for him but we always manage to get through our game with my help and sometimes, if the cards are coming up his way, Dad even wins.

Although he often asks me the same question every time I shuffle (currently it’s How is life treating you, Ron?), having the game makes it easier to be together. I know I should be more patient because none of this is his fault. The game helps me maintain a connection with the man I adored as a child, resented as a teenager, and came to respect as I grew up to became a father and a grandfather. In many ways he was, and is, a better man than I. It’s very hard to watch him regress, one year of his past at a time. He doesn’t remember his marriage or my birth eight months later. The only memories he can muster these days come from his pre-teen years. Soon he’ll be erased. Scrubbed clean of his past, including me.

He tells me to “drive safe,” as I get up to leave – a typical “dad” thing to do. I tell him to ‘stay out of trouble,’ which never fails to elicit a wry laugh. There are many things I don’t understand about dementia and Alzheimer’s. How does he still have the instinct to be my father even though he can’t remember being my father?

And, as always, I walk away wondering if the “dad” persona disappears as soon as I’m out of sight allowing the confusion and frustration of dementia to fill up space where his memories used to be.

Dementia Post# 4

September 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Dementia and my father. 

September heralded one significant event, and a milestone of sorts, in our family. The two occasions collided last weekend in our kitchen, illustrating the best and worst that life may offer.

 It has been one year since we first noticed my father’s confusion and memory-loss, an inauspicious anniversary that coincided with my daughter’s wedding day, last weekend. It created a heart-breaking moment during the last-minute preparations on Saturday.

The house was full and buzzing with activity as everyone, including Karie Anne and her bridesmaids, changed into their wedding-day finery. Throughout most of the hubbub, my Dad sat at the kitchen table, a big smile on his face, watching the comings and goings of excited, chattering people. I didn’t pay him much mind for a while, since he seemed content and I was busy. Finally, the bride-to-be appeared in her white gown. She was radiant and beautiful with professionally done hair and airbrushed make-up. As she stood beside her grandfather, he looked up from his seat, grasped her hand clumsily and asked, “Why are you all dressed up like that, sweetie?”

 A ripple of pain crossed her joyful face but she recovered her smile, leaned down, patted his hand patiently, and said, “I’m getting married today, Grandpa.”

 I saw his grin broaden with happiness and pride before I turned away. I doubt that he knew that she was his first grandchild to wed and by Sunday afternoon he wouldn’t remember the ceremony, the reception, or the dance. As usual, Karie Anne handled that knowledge with grace and understanding,

 “At least I know he was there.”


June 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Dementia and my father. 

The phone rang and I immediately regretted my decision to take the call. My dad’s emotion-filled voice cracked, “I’m so upset. I need to go to the store so you either come down here today or else don’t ever come here again.”

 I don’t know how to respond to the outburst, but he saves me the trouble by hanging up.

It’s not his fault, I think for the hundredth time since this all started, it’s just the dementia. I try to comprehend his condition and the way his damaged brain now operates but I’m baffled and it occurs to me that multiplying my bafflement a couple of hundred times over might get me closer to what he’s going through.

He knows that I have his car keys but his broken connections won’t allow him to know why. He wants, or needs, to go somewhere and he connects his inability to drive with my betrayal, that day almost three months ago, when I walked out of his house with the car keys. The frustration and anger builds, compelling him to call me. Sometimes, if I wait a couple of hours, he’ll have forgotten and we might have a pleasant conversation. Other days, he calls repeatedly until we talk, or argue, or fight.

            As I often do these days, I send an e-mail to my brothers,

           TO: Chuck, Bruce

             Don’t answer the phone unless you’re in a good mood and you want to be the “good  son” today. Dad’s on the warpath because he can’t drive down to the store. If I don’t return his keys, he doesn’t want to see me again.

 Does that mean that I’m disowned and it’s all on you guys now?


             Black humour is a natural response to dire circumstances or stressful situations and it has become a part of our communications. Dad would be mortally offended at some of the things we say, even though we mean no disrespect, It’s just a coping strategy, I tell myself, clicking “Send” with guilty hesitation.

Bruce responds first:

            Not home this weekend so will have to listen to the message if he remembered the phone number. We’re in Banff watching Jenessa play hockey and bringing her home tomorrow for a couple weeks.

            Chuck replies an hour later.

             I got the call today as well as the hang up. He was pretty pissed off that no one has told him about not being able to drive. He still has his license, why the fuck doesn’t he have the keys to his car?

 He didn’t say I’m disowned, but I really don’t blame him for disowning Ron. I always point out that all of Dad’s troubles can be traced back to his evil son, Ron.

 It makes me smile but more importantly, I know I’m not in this by myself. Maybe we should talk about our feelings instead of being jackasses, but this interaction feels natural to us and I’m thankful that they play along. Add “sons of dementia patients” to the list of people who laugh in the face of chaos and doom.

April 18, 2010

April 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Dementia and my father. 

My brother, Chuck, was first to raise the alarm. During a visit to Nanaimo, where Chuck lives, in early October, Dad did not make it from the arena, where my nephew was playing hockey, to Chuck’s house after the game. When he didn’t show up, Chuck called his cell, determined his location, and drove to a shopping center parking lot nearby where Dad was sitting behind the wheel of his car. He was confused and disoriented. He could not remember how to get to Chuck’s place and was leafing through an address book as if searching for a phone number or an address to jog his memory.

         When I heard the story, it sounded like the symptoms of a concussion or a stroke. He’d had a prostate operation in September and we wondered if there was a connection. We were puzzled and concerned but we reasoned that if there were no more episodes, we would chalk it up to advancing age. He was eighty, after all.

            Conversations with him over the weeks after the Nanaimo incident, made us all a bit uncomfortable. His memory seemed poor but he denied that anything was wrong. In November, during a phone conversation, I told Dad that my son, Andrew, had found a new job after being unemployed for six weeks. He was surprised, and didn’t know that Andrew had been laid off. I was surprised that he didn’t know but questioned myself. Maybe I hadn’t told him.

            In late November, Dad came to Langley for a visit. He planned to catch the 11:00 AM ferry from Swartz Bay but ended up on the 1:00 PM. It seemed odd that he missed the earlier boat but stuff happens, I supposed. At 3:30 I began to anticipate his arrival but at 4:00 he had still not appeared. The phone rang. It was Canadian Tire in Langley. The young person on the other end handed my father the phone. “I can’t remember how to get to your house,” he said. His voice was small, almost plaintive.

            I tried to give him directions but he didn’t sound capable of comprehending where he was or how to get from there to our house, even though we’ve lived in the same place for over twenty years.

            “Can you come and get me?” he asked.

            I told him to wait there and, since I was in the middle of preparing a family supper, I told him that Karie, my daughter would help. I hung up and called her. She and her fiance’ were coming for dinner and I caught them enroute. They changed course to the Canadian Tire gas bar and, with Karie in the passenger seat, she directed him to our house. While I waited for them to arrive, I thought, This will do it. Now he can’t deny that there is something wrong. But he seemed to be in good spirits and just a bit embarrassed. He explained that traffic was heavy, it was raining, and getting dark. Nothing looked familiar on 200th Street, that’s all. Nothing to worry about.

            I did worry, though. How was he going to get home on Sunday? The next day, I offered to drive his car to the ferry but he was offended and insisted that he would drive himself. In the end, I gave in, and he made it home without any further incidents that I’m aware of.

            Through early December, my brothers and I frequently compared experiences and observations and it was clear that something was going on with our Dad’s brain. Bruce spoke to Dad’s doctor who ruled out a stroke but scheduled an appointment at the geriatric clinic for a full assessment.

            Dad planned to spend Christmas in Kamloops with Bruce but booked a flight to Kelowna instead, in order to visit with Elizabeth, my mother’s never-married sister. Bruce and his wife, Mila, would drive down for Christmas dinner. At first, he was excited about the trip but a few days before his departure date, he cancelled the trip and said that he would stay home for the holidays.

            My brothers and I conferred and it was decided that Chuck would get Dad and take him to Nanaimo for Christmas day and then bring him to Langley on Boxing day. Bruce and Mila wanted to come down, as well, and we’d have another family celebration. At supper on Saturday, Dad was lucid and happy.

            On Sunday, the 27th of December, we drove out to Chilliwack to watch Chuck’s son, Dade, play hockey. Dad and I were alone in my truck. It was a beautiful, clear day as we headed east on Highway 1 from Langley. Approaching Abbotsford, we admired Mount Baker. The snow-covered, dormant volcano just over the border in Washington State, gleamed in the sun. Dad looked at it for a few minutes and then turned to me with a quizzical expression and asked, “Is that Mount Selassy?”

            I was stunned into silence. Until that moment, I still questioned the seriousness of his condition. The previous night at dinner, he was happy and lucid, basking in the holiday cheer exuded by his sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. He exhibited few signs of memory loss or confusion and I had begun to doubt our grave prognosis.

            “That’s Mount Baker, Dad,” I finally responded. It didn’t seem to register in his brain and a few minutes later he asked to same question. I could not believe what I was hearing. Mount Baker is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Fraser Valley and northwestern Washington State. My father had lived in B.C. his entire life and now that knowledge was beyond his grasp. It was inconceivable and the reality hit me like nothing else he’d said or done in the past weeks. My dad was going to a dark place and I had no choice except to follow him.

A journey into dementia.

March 30, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Dementia and my father. 

March 21, 2010

 The business line in my home-office rang but I didn’t pick it up when I saw the call display. I felt guilty but I wasn’t in the mood and I knew exactly how the conversation would begin and end. I waited for my father’s name to disappear from the display and waited for the voice-mail signal. I steeled myself, hit *98, and waited for his voice.

The message started with and exasperated sigh, “Ron, I hope that you will be here tomorrow (pause) and bring back my life to me.” 

“Here” is Victoria. I live in Langley BC, a four hour trip by road and ferry, from his home. I can’t restore his “life’ because that word is code for “car keys”. He wants them back and he calls nearly every day. In his mind, without a car he has no life, and no reason to live. 

On January 26 we received the official diagnosis. “Vascular dementia”, the doctor told us. I wasn’t surprised. On-line research into the sudden onset of short-term memory loss and confusion, had all but ruled out a stroke or Alzheimers. Before the middle of last September, my dad was an average eighty-year-old. Some physical problems but he was a kind, caring man with a sharp mind and an excellent memory. Now he considers me the enemy and his primary persecutor because on January 27, before I left his house to return home, I told him that I was taking his car keys. 

After hearing the geriatric doctor tell him that he could no longer drive, and after receiving a letter from the motor vehicle branch advising him that his license had been suspended, Dad looked as if I’d slapped him, “Who says I can’t drive?” he asked. 

It has been hell ever since. Hardly a day passes without a phone call. He has been demanding, threatening, cajoling. He has tried guilt, anger, suggestions of suicide, and reason to no avail. The calls usually end with frustration on both ends of the line and a click of termination from his side. 

We have embarked on a journey, my dad and I, that I would wish on no one.

Ron Young