When I walked into the Alzheimer's/Dementia unit at the assisted living home with my daughter Friday evening, we found my dad in the dining room along with the other residents, sitting in his wheelchair at a table, waiting for dinner to be served. Or at least sitting there waiting for whatever might come next. My daughter and I tried to greet him, but could not get him to make eye contact with us or acknowledge us in any way. He remained focused on the table in front of him, saying nothing, not moving a muscle in our direction as I hugged him and leaned down to look in his eyes. We sat down at his table, my daughter in the chair on his left, me directly across from him. Another resident was sitting to his right.
I watched him as he focused on the space right in front of him and began folding the edge of the tablecloth up onto the table. As he folded with his fingers, which didn't seem to cooperate with him, his arms looked almost robotic-like, jerking randomly. It was difficult to watch, as up until recently, he never had any problems moving his arms or hands. I marveled at how determined he was to do whatever it was he thought needed to be done to that tablecloth.
When the food was served, he began to eat with his fingers. The dinner menu that day was fried shrimp, shrimp sauce, green beans, french fries, and a roll. He didn't eat much before stopping. I noticed he didn't have utensils, so I asked for some to be brought. The worker told me he probably wouldn't use them, and she was right. He didn't. He continued to use his fingers.
My daughter, bless her heart, started feeding him food from his plate, one shrimp--or green bean--or french fry at a time, which he would take and eat, slowly. But it wasn't long before he stopped again and began refusing the food. Then the worker who is also a previous employee of my dad from years ago brought him a special nutritional "shake" that resembled vanilla ice cream and began feeding it to him. He took about three bites and then stopped.
It broke my heart to see how he has gone downhill in the past few weeks. He looked so much weaker, frailer, thinner. His shoulders now hunch over a little, which is something fairly new. He was never the type of man to hunch. And it concerned me that he didn't seem to be able to acknowledge us at all. Had he lost that much ground since the last time I saw him about two weeks ago?
But then I was reassured when, the longer we sat with him, the more responsive he started to become. He finally began responding to our worker friend, using words we could clearly understand, even if it was only a few words. He even looked up at my daughter a time or two, and smiled a little at her, the kind of knowing smile that made me think he might know who she was.
Then as we were leaving and saying our goodbyes, I breathed a sigh of relief to myself when he responded to me, too, not only with words, but with body language as well, and looked up in my direction. Funny how you become so hyper-sensitive to body language when the spoken word is no longer your primary source of communication. I cherished that moment, those few simple words he said to me--"Okay," and "Bye," and "Love you, too." The sound of his voice was like music in my ears, and I grabbed that moment and held on to it tightly. Almost as tightly as I hugged him.