My father joined the Air Force in 1950 during the Korean War where he trained as an airplane mechanic. After his tour of duty, he returned to his home in Miami and married my mother after only three months of courtship. He worked during the day and attended barber school at night, where he acquired the training to eventually own his first two barber shops. Years later, our family moved to Pensacola where my father would come to own his third barber shop. My parents later retired and moved to Georgia for the sole purpose of spending more time with their children and grandchildren. Although my dad enjoyed doing yard work and watching sports, he mostly loved spending time with his family. He was the most loving and compassionate person I’ve ever known, gladly giving you the shirt off his back if necessary. His generosity knew no bounds.
I noticed minor, even subtle changes with his cognition at first; hiding personal objects, forgetting to pay bills, losing the ability to fix things which he had operated his entire adult life. In time, the changes grew more serious: he no longer felt comfortable driving alone for fear of getting lost; his overall mood fell prey to serious depression; in the evenings his anxiety caused extreme agitation at home. Medical problems also occurred, requiring three procedures, including triple bypass surgery, all within two months. My father started falling during the night and was hospitalized multiple times. I watched as his condition rapidly worsened every day.
As his primary caregiver, I found myself thrust into a world about which I knew very little: the world of dementia. I felt bewildered and alone, the incredible weight on my shoulders almost too much to bear. I never truly knew what to expect from day to day. I didn’t always do the right thing or say the correct words; and looking back, I may not have always made the right decisions. Clearly, I was in over my head, but my choices were few and far between. I was a daughter that woke up one day to find herself caring for her father, our relationship roles now reversed.
I remember so well the day when I hit rock bottom. The hospital had just released my father a few days earlier after suffering a serious fall and ensuing concussion. His demeanor that day had evolved into a state of unbelievable agitation which left my mother and I terrified. I had already discussed a plan with her should things ever get out of hand, for which I felt unbelievably guilty. He was my precious father, but I knew we had no choice. Throughout the day, we tried to remain calm, feeling as though we were waiting for the inevitable. At some point that afternoon, I knew I needed help. I called the Alzheimer’s Association who then transferred me to the Georgia Chapter. As soon as I explained our situation, I was placed on a conference call with two counselors. Throughout much of the conversation I was in tears. The women with whom I spoke with were so incredibly compassionate in their explanation of the protocol should my father’s agitation become dangerous. I was also given the phone numbers to the respective facilities that would be involved if 911 needed to be called. For several days after that, Alzheimer’s Association staff repeatedly called me and sent emails to ensure that my family was okay. As devastated as I felt, I was also prepared as a result of the kind and dedicated staff who spoke with me that day. I will forever be grateful for their support on a day when my family desperately needed guidance.
Unfortunately, about four hours after our phone conversation, the disease led my father to do the unspeakable, which forced my mother to call 911. Everything that had been forewarned to me had finally come to fruition. I sadly watched my father taken away that night, never to return home again. The authorities sent him to a psychiatric hospital where he was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Vascular Dementia. Then he was moved into a memory care unit for his safety as well as my mother’s. Over the next several months, my father’s condition continued to deteriorate. He suffered more agitation, a fractured hip and complications from surgery and medications.
On October 22, 2011, my father lost his battle with Alzheimer’s. From the point of his formal diagnosis, he survived less than a year, enduring a level of suffering to which no human should ever be subjected. Though we were not aware of it, I believe that he suffered from this terrible disease for many years prior to the actual diagnosis. I watched Alzheimer’s take my dad from me, little by little. It changed him every day until finally; he was simply a shell of the man I once knew. On the outside he looked the same but on the inside he had changed completely. This vile disease stole everything from him until inevitably reducing him to a stranger. Then when nothing was left, it stole his life.
My ultimate dream is that there will come a day when there will be no more Alzheimer’s or dementia of any kind; when people will be able to live their lives with every precious memory intact until the very end. Until that wondrous day, there are things we can do to make the journey a little easier. Learn as much as you can about this disease; read reference books for knowledge and caregiving stories for support; recognize the initial signs and seek an early diagnosis; contact your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter; find support groups, either locally or online; question every decision for your loved one; advocate for them; make sure a living will is in place; don’t be afraid to ask for help; take care of yourself and most of all, enjoy every precious moment as if it was their last.
Vanessa Luther is the author of A Life Stolen: My Father’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s, the true account of the devastating, but inspiring journey that she and her father travelled through Alzheimer’s. After earning her Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia where she worked as a Consulting Software Engineer for 17 years. She then put her career on hold to raise her three sons and eventually became her father’s primary caregiver. She currently lives in Lawrenceville, Georgia with her husband, three sons and their dog.