My thoughts in the mornings aren’t very random anymore. In fact they are down-right predictable. My parents, either my mother, my father, or both, are on my mind when I first wake up, lying in my bed each morning. That’s one of the reasons I’m having trouble getting a blog up consistently. I don’t want to burden my readers with it.
But today I want to try to close a chapter for you about my dad’s life and death and Alzheimer’s.
Earlier on when the reality that Dad had Alzheimer’s started to sink in, I wondered how he would actually die. Does Alzheimer’s itself actually kill you? If so, how? Would the damage in his brain ultimately stop his heart from beating?
So I researched the end stages of Alzheimer’s online and read about all the things that could happen, and did eventually happen, to my dad. Often, it seemed to me that Alzheimer’s patients basically starved to death or died from dehydration, being unable to eat or drink. This did not sound like a good way to go, or process to watch. I dreaded the final days and weeks.
I don’t like to think back on the last weeks of Mom and Dad’s life together in their home with the series of desperate days trying to get Dad out of bed, trying to feed him, watching Mom in an exhausted state trying to catheterize him three times a day in his bed. (The catheters had become necessary years ago following radiation treatment for prostate cancer.)
During the last week of November I retrieved Annie’s Hoyer lift from the garage where it had been covered and stored since shortly after Annie’s death. I scheduled a lift repairman to come and check it out for us to make sure it was working and then I moved it to my parents’ bedroom beside Dad’s hospital bed. By now their bedroom closely resembled a nursing home room with the equipment and supplies we had collected there.
I planned to teach each of Dad’s home health aides how to use the lift. I was going to write clear instructions and post them on the wall.
That Sunday we found out about Mom’s cancer and I took over taking care of Dad for her the next few days during which I had a nurse come and give Dad an indwelling or Foley catheter that would only have to be changed monthly. By Monday Dad started with symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting. By Tuesday evening I noticed his breaths were shallow and rapid. I suspected at minimum that he was dehydrated from the flu-like symptoms. In consultation with my sister who had stopped over, we decided to call 911.
The paramedics came, put Dad on a gurney, rolled him out, and he never returned home.
In the ER we found out he had a full-blown urinary tract infection and was sepsis. I watched the monitor as his blood pressure dropped. They put Dad on a strong IV antibiotic and admitted him to the hospital where he stayed for six days.
In some ways the decision to move Dad to a nursing home was made for us. It would have been craziness to move him back home with Mom having discovered she had cancer. Around-the-clock help at home is really not affordable. It didn’t seem feasible that one of us would be able to stay there every single night indefinitely. And there was no way we were going to leave Mom alone with Dad now that we knew how vitally important her rest would be to her. The medical professionals and support services at the hospital just assumed he was going to a nursing home.
Meanwhile, we were battling Mom’s high blood pressure which we became aware of while she was in the ER finding out about her cancer on Sunday. In retrospect, it was likely the cancer that was causing the blood pressure problem, but at the time we thought it was the stress and anxiety.
We were monitoring Mom’s blood pressure at home and making regular calls to her family doctor giving them updates and receiving medication changes. Mom’s BP was frequently higher than 200/something, and we were not able to get it lowered significantly.
While Dad was still in the hospital the doctor refused to allow us to continue the over-the-phone consultations and demanded to see Mom before making any further medicine adjustments. I left the hospital where I was visiting Dad, picked up Mom and took her to her doctor’s office. While we were there I asked for his opinion about the plan we were formulating to find a nursing home for Dad with an assisted-living facility on campus. He said, “Bringing Jerry home is non-negotiable. He has to go somewhere.” And then he offered the name of the facility that his family had used and where we ended up moving each of them before Christmas.
It was really out of our hands.
Shortly after Dad arrived at the nursing facility I met with his new visiting doctor there. He wanted to know how aggressively we wanted to treat Dad. I told him Dad had a living will, and was pretty miserable being stuck in his largely nonfunctional body, from my perspective. I didn’t think heroic life-saving measures were appropriate. But I also told him about Mom’s situation. I really didn’t want Mom to have to suffer Dad’s death while she was dealing with her own cancer. “I think we need to keep Dad alive if we can. For now,” I said. He suggested we get Hospice involved. I was concerned that we’d lose the option of giving Dad antibiotics if Hospice was involved and I was afraid of more UTI problems because of the Foley catheter. I was under the impression that once you are under Hospice care it shifts from curative to comfort. And I had read that some people suggest in the end stages of Alzheimer’s that antibiotics are not given to cure infection and prolong life.
I wasn’t ready to lose Dad under these conditions if we could keep him here a little bit longer. I feel bad sometimes for making him endure more when perhaps he could have left sooner. I believe if we wouldn’t have called 911 when we did, he would not have survived that initial infection. We prolonged his life by calling 911. These are difficult decisions to make. I knew in my mind, heart and every ounce of my being that Dad did not want to be here anymore. His life was misery. And if there were moments when he was completely aware of his surroundings and his condition, as I have read there can be, I don’t know how he bore it all.
Anyway, Dad survived the Foley catheter, the infection, the move to the nursing home, and Mom dying. He made it through getting dressed up, transported to, and enduring Mom’s funeral mass. He made it to his 80th birthday that we celebrated the Friday afternoon after my siblings and I made the trip to Piqua and laid Mom to rest in the cemetery in the morning.
The Thursday after Mom’s funeral, and after Dad’s 80th birthday, I got a call from his nurse. “Your dad had an ‘event’ this morning,” she said. His loyal and compassionate home health care aide was with him at the time. The nurse explained,”He slumped over in his chair and turned gray. We got him back into his bed. I need to know if you want us to do blood work to try to figure out if he has suffered a cardiac or neurological event. Does he have DNR?”
I told her he had a living will and a DNR and that I would be there as soon as I could. I called my siblings and told them what was going on. “I don’t think we want to do any interventions,” I said. My siblings all agreed. I was getting a clear message in my mind as if someone was speaking to me, “Let him go,” it insisted.
So they brought in Hospice Comfort Care. We gathered at his bedside and performed our 24-7 death watch for the second time that month. Dad was conscious when we all arrived and turned his gaze to each of us one at a time. He was jerking his right arm periodically. We interpreted that as a sign of pain, but later one of the Hospice nurses suggested it could be a spasm or seizure.
It’s difficult to know how much to medicate someone who is nonverbal. We had been through that before with Annie.
I stayed with Dad Thursday night, sitting by his side in a recliner, dozing on and off, but holding onto his hand.
We all gathered together in Dad’s room during the day on Friday. I don’t remember when last he was conscious.
My sister stayed with him Friday night. I knew when I said “Good-bye” to him, before going home to sleep, that I might not see him alive again. It was the third time I had been on a death watch with Hospice Crisis Care. I knew the signs.
The phone call woke me up at about 3:00 a.m. “Dad’s dying,” my sister said. “I don’t think he will be alive by the time you get here.” We got in the car and arrived shortly after he breathed his last at 3:23 a.m. with my sister by his side.
The truth of the matter is that I really don’t know what Dad actually died from. I don’t know whether it was the cancer he had been treated for years ago that damaged his urinary tract making catheters necessary with their associated infections. I don’t know if it was dehydration from his inability to eat or drink much of anything. I don’t know if he had an infection, or if he suffered a “neurological or cardiac event.” Or maybe it was a broken heart that ultimately killed him.
I do know that for the last five years he suffered from Alzheimer’s in every sense of the word.
We all did.
And I’m grateful that the suffering has come to an end.