I’ve got a couple of friends who are living through the trying time of dealing with spouses trapped in the world of dementia and a couple others who are living through the hospice phase of their partner’s life.
Neither is a comfortable place to be, but often a fact of life as we slide through our senior years.
I’ve done my share of it. My stepmother’s mother, who was pushing 100 when she died, was a serious case of dementia. I spent a lot of time visiting my father-in-law as he spent his final days in a hospice center. My mother-in-law lived with us for her final eight years, the last 14 months of which were under hospice care at home. And, I spent what time I could over her last years with my last aunt that came over from Switzerland as she slowly wound down from a long, adventuresome life.
One thing I found in common among all of them was their memories and how they employed them to ease them through their final days.
My grandfather and his sister were the greatest I met at using their favorite memories to lighten up the fading years of their lives. They lived to be 96 and 104, respectively. I spent many afternoons in the rocking chairs, smoking our pipes, in front of the fireplace in my grandfather’s den listening to his great tales of adventure. His sister, my great aunt, wowed me with tales she had lived over half the life of this country.
The key seemed to be keeping it all in the positive.
Even my father-in-law, as he lay dying in a hospice center, would tell me the positive stories of the days he built a home on a river in up state New York after coming home from World War II. I’m not always sure he knew just who I was. He sometimes would talk to me as one of his old friends, telling me to hold one end of a plank as he lined up the proper angle on a ceiling frame. I knew well his horror stories from World War II, especially the one where he had to kill a Japanese soldier with his bare hands to prevent the Japanese from killing him. That one gave him nightmares that he would often tell me about. But those negative memories seemed to fade in his waning days as the more positive ones he enjoyed replaced them.
I’ve had my good times and my bad times in life and the only way I have ever found to get out of the grand funk of despair and depression has been to concentrate on some of the good times from the past. It beats all the drugs they can give you.
I’ve only met one person in life that could tell me she never remembered having had a good day. I have always felt sorry for that person. I cannot imagine never having had a good, positive day in one’s life.
I’m at that point in life where I’m beginning to get a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel and I find it is a positive light if I maintain a positive attitude about it. Dying is simply something that we are all going to do.
My friends that have suffered from one form or another of dementia have only strengthened my believe that there is much power in accentuating the positive. I would stop and visit my stepmother’s mother and, like when visiting my father-in-law, was never sure if she remembered who I was. Yet, she was quite happy to tell me that her daughters had been to see her the day before and they had had a wonderful picnic under the big maple tree outside her window. The truth was that her daughters had not been to see her for weeks, but she was content and quite happy with her memory of their make-believe visit and picnic.
My memories go back a long way today. One of the earliest is of a Fourth of July celebration in my small hometown of Sunbury, Ohio. It was the first one in which they let me play my kazoo in the town band. There I was, not quite five years old, in my little sailor hat and short pants, the youngest of the lot, blazing away at whatever song the lady in charge was leading. And, I remember the old veterans, especially two from the Spanish-American War, who were there in their uniforms. Many were from the War to End All Wars – World War I – on the eve of the greatest conflict this world would ever see when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that next December.
There is a fond memory of a day in our family fishing camp in Michigan when I fell off the dock so many times there was nothing left to dress me in but my footie pajamas.
And then there are days that come back with great memories from my days in military school in Missouri, my days as an Army spook in the Far East, and my days of traveling this county as part of our Bicentennial celebration preaching the gospel of clean water for the Izaak Walton League of America. The good memories, and the people I met along the way, go on and on.
Take for instance the day I was down on the world and myself and I took one of the company airplanes and decided to go flying. I went “VFR on Top” – Visual Flight Rules Only above the clouds – and climbed up where I could see forever and cruise all along with no one but myself and God. It is a flight I make over and over again in my mind.
The kicker in that one is that after I had flown for a couple of hours I found a hole in the clouds and descended to a spot over a desolate beach in northeast Florida where I spotted an old Higgins boat, ramp down on the beach, unloading bales into a truck that had driven over an abandoned dirt road to the strand. I realized how lucky I was to be alive and free from such lawbreaking and desperate business.
Today I am prone to make a note on my computer, or simply on a piece of scrap paper, of a positive memory from the past when it pops into my mind. It is my way of recording that moment in my mind for instant recall – good time to savor – when the less positive starts to creep in.
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