Loving Through Dementia: For Better Or For Worse

Jaime Pollard-Smith looks back at the power of her parents’ marriage as she celebrates their 46th wedding anniversary this month. She shares her father’s strength in caring for her mom who has been living with young-onset Alzheimer’s for the past six years.
By Jaime Pollard-Smith

For better or for worse. These familiar words mark the entrance to holy matrimony. We make a commitment to endure hardships and celebrate successes side by side. Our joys are to be doubled and our sorrows cut in half. Optimism and marital bliss brace us to endure all things.

In sickness and in health. We never know exactly how this line will play out in the real world. It might be quick like a bandaid being ripped from tender skin, or it could be a prolonged, painful, slow fade. Our family has experienced both ends of the spectrum. My mother-in-law was on vacation with her husband headed to New Mexico one second and then gone the next. Her heart was irreparably bruised on impact. Her health was swept away in an instant, never moving through stages of sickness.
The opposite scenario is true with my parents. My mom, now under the care of Hospice, has been living with early onset Alzheimer’s for over six years. I am beginning to think she deserves a longevity award.

My dad, her primary caregiver, has literally put his life on hold to offer her full-time care and keep her living at home with him for as long as possible. Mom did not want to live in a nursing home. Dad is pouring his heart and soul into honoring her wishes; in sickness without health for over half a decade.

My dad cannot leave Mom unattended. He is fortunate to have a daycare center where she can go on weekdays from 7-4:30. This safehaven gives Mom a structured schedule and allows Dad some hours to himself to do any necessary chores outside the home. Mom is past the point of being able to go shopping or out to eat with him.

Dad feeds her, changes her, paints her nails, and cuts and colors her hair. He does it all. And at the end of the day, when he tucks her into bed, he reviews pictures of each family member and reminds her of how much love she has in her life.

I recently sent Dad a note thanking him for loving Mom the way he does. It is a beautiful example of unselfish love and true, unconditional commitment. He upholds his vows in the most real sense. Dad’s response was simple: “She deserves it.” I went on to tell him that each of these moments she spends with him are gestures of love and affection.

Mom might not be able to speak or follow directions, but her face lights up when she looks at my dad. She sits next to him on the couch for hours stroking his arm and patting his hand. He has guarded this sacred space and time for her to be surrounded by her loved ones and people who care about her.

On our last visit, I sat on the porch with Mom speaking my heart hoping some piece of my message would be received. I told her that she would be so incredibly proud of the way Dad has stepped up and made it his life’s work to care for her. She looked me in the eyes. I could feel her gratitude. I sense that she knows Dad makes sure she is always wearing her favorite colors, enjoying her favorite sweet treats, and sporting her favorite shade of iridescent purple nail polish. He honors her life and their vows in even the smallest of gestures.

If Mom was still able to communicate, I do believe she would lament feeling that she has been a burden to her family. She would worry about inconveniencing others. But I also know that she would be in awe of the man she married. She would be so honored to be loved and upheld in such a remarkable way. My dad, her husband, the father of her children, never cut a single corner when it came to loving her and providing the best possible care up until her final days.

This month my parents will celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary. There will be no reservations for fancy dinners, dancing, or romantic getaways to exotic places. They will not even sleep in the same bed since Mom has been moved to a specialized bed provided by Hospice. But there will be flowers, most likely roses – Mom’s favorite. Dad will buy her special treats and feed them to her cut into tiny pieces so she does not get choked. They will sit side by side and hold hands being content to simply exist next to each other. One more year of marriage in the books. Til death do us part.

Jaime Pollard-Smith is a full-time writing instructor with a Master of Arts from New York University. She is a reader, writer, nature lover, lifter and wandering soul trying to figure it all out. She has been writing and documenting her family’s journey with Alzheimer’s.

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