Keli Gwyn
The Surprising Gift of Alzheimers

When Dad was first diagnosed with Alzheimers, I wept a sea of salty tears.

Mere months have gone by, but Dad’s decline has been rapid. This heart-wrenching disease has robbed him of many of his memories, some of his mobility, and a fair measure of his dignity.

Visiting Dad

The journey has been a tough one for Dad, as well as for my three siblings. I feel for my sister who lives near him. Although he lives in a wonderful facility with a kind and knowledge staff equipped to deal with dementia patients, she’s the one helping him with his day-to-day issues–and doing a tremendous job of it. Our other sister has extensive training in elder care and is a wealth of information. Our brother who works in law enforcement has much to offer from his perspective as well. Between the three of them, Dad is in good hands.

And me? I try to support my sisters and brother the best I can, but at times I wonder if the little I do really makes a difference.

I made the four-hour drive to visit Dad on Halloween. I’d been told that taking him ice cream would make his day, so I arrived bearing a strawberry shake and a Burger King crown, a simple costume, yes, but one fitting for the man who poured his heart into his four kids.


I was also told Dad rarely recognizes anyone now. To my delight, when I greeted him, calling him “Dad” to remind him of our relationship and quickly supplying my name, he smiled with obvious recognition.

The next words out of Dad’s mouth brought me back to reality. He asked what I was doing back from Germany so soon, letting me know he had gone back in time over twenty years to when Gwynly and I lived abroad.

I got Dad settled at a patio table and handed him his shake. He did his best to enjoy his treat, but his eye-hand coordination isn’t what it used to be.

Not being a nurse or caregiver by nature, I wasn’t sure how I’d respond to Dad’s limitations. When dollops of ice cream began falling down his front, I reached for my tissues as instinctively as a mother of a young child would and sopped up the sticky plops.

Not wanting Dad to feel embarrassed by my ministrations, I smiled and reminded him of all the times he’d taken me to Thrifty Drug Store for their five-cent-per-scoop ice cream cones when I was little and how he’d taken care of the drips for me. “It’s my turn to help you,” I said.

An important truth struck me in all its sugary sweetness. I’ve been given a gift. Dad paid a great price to parent me, sacrificing more times than I care to recount. I have an opportunity to give back, if only in small ways.

There will be more visits and more shakes in the future, but two things have changed. First, whether or not Dad remembers me, I will be glad to see him and add a smile to his day. And second, I’ll know to pack wet wipes next time.


Update – January 2014

The visit I mentioned above was wonderful. I’d had to make time in my busy schedule to see Dad, but I’m so glad I did. I’d planned to see him again in early December, but he got sick, so my visit was postponed until he was well again.

Sadly that day never came. Dad went into the hospital shortly after that. His doctors suspected a minor infection, but tests showed that the one he had was much worse than originally thought and was ravaging his body. Surgery wasn’t an option, so he was put on Hospice care.

On December 18, 2013 the hospital staff told us end was imminent.  I rushed to see Dad, forging on in my ailing SportTrac with two gears out of commission when the transmission packed it in en route. Thanks to the prayers of many, I made it. I feared I wouldn’t arrive in time to say goodbye, but it turned out we had more time than we’d originally thought.

My two sisters, brother, new sister-in-law and I gathered at Dad’s bedside, spending two memorable days together as we said our final farewells. Dad was comatose the entire time, but even so, I like to think he knew we were there.

Dad lost his battle on December 28 while Gwynly and I were visiting our daughter, who is living and working in France this school year. Even though I knew the end was coming, it was still hard to hear the news, especially when I was so far away.

I miss my dad and will grieve my loss, but I know that one day the happy memories will overshadow the sadness. I’m comforted by the fact that Dad didn’t have to suffer at the hands of that cruel thief of memories and dignity known as Alzheimers for very long. And I’m strengthened by the many prayers others have lifted on my behalf. Thank you for each and every one of them.


Do you have experience dealing with a loved one diagnosed with dementia?

If so, what lessons have you learned in the process?


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Keli Gwyn