I pull the car to the side and park. In the rearview mirror, I watch Dad stabilize himself at a fence post. The minute he stops moving, his pants slide down. An incontinence diaper is exposed where his jacket ends. With clear annoyance, Dad tries to pull up his pants with one hand – to no avail. My heart goes out to him. All his life had been about proper appearances. Even when working at home, he wore starched white shirts and ties. I rush to assist him.
He is not the least bit surprised to see me or my family. As if we had announced our visit or lived just around the corner.
“Papa, where do you want to go?”
I help Dad cover up his exposed behind. Today, he forgot the belt or suspenders that he normally wears. With my fingers functioning like a clothes pin, I keep my hand in the small of his back.
“To the train station around the corner”, he replies.
“Papa, we are far away from any train station!”
“Nonsense, I lived here longer than you! Of course, trains stop here!”
I learned years ago not to contradict this tone of his voice. It has never allowed for any reasoning.
My husband and daughter have joined us. They overheard Dad’s last sentence.
“Which train did you want to catch, Opa?” Our daughter asks with innocent curiosity.
“The train to Leipzig, of course! I haven’t visited our parents for a long time!”
Time has lost its place in Dad’s present state of mind. My paternal grandparents died both in the early 1960ies. I take some deep breaths.
No one has prepared me for how to handle my father’s dementia. His unofficial diagnosis is less than three weeks old. This disease is a shapeshifter with infinite faces. Ingenuity and quick thinking are key to counteracting. I draw a blank.
My husband suggests: “Why don’t we all go back and sit outside on a bench? If and when it is indeed your time to take this train, it will come by to pick you up right from home.” I look at my husband, astounded. How ingenious he is sometimes! My husband hasn’t even blinked. He looks Dad straight in the eye. Dad looks at his son-in-law full of skepticism. Dad’s eyes give away his inner struggle. He knows that his son-in-law worships the truth. Dad turns his head into the direction he came from. We take this opportunity, link elbows with my father, and guide him back to the nursing home at a very slow pace –with my hand still wrapped around Dad’s waist to keep his trousers up.
While my family picks a free bench, I go inside to talk to the staff. Afterwards, we all sit and watch in silence hundreds of tadpoles feeding at the edge of a pond. Waterlily pads cover most of its surface. Droplets of last night’s rain glisten like pearls on some of them. I am thankful for the peace of this moment in time.
It contains every single instant I spent nursing Dad back to his current condition after a fall-induced hospital stay. It contains every single call made to find appropriate nursing care that he can afford. It contains all the trips to check places out in person, all the tears and frustration about most of my discoveries. It contains the relief to find at last an open spot for Dad in this idyllic setting. It contains all the struggle and grief we both had to go through in the past weeks. It contains gratitude, joy, and surprise to see Dad try to accept this major change. A true gift to me, his only child.
I look at Dad. He looks straight ahead, at nothing in particular.
Only a few days later, Dad is back in the hospital. Neglected injuries from a fall in the nursing home have resulted in wide-spread infection. Serious issues arise. Dad is kept for further observation. He refuses to eat and drink. He becomes feeble and talks about leaving soon. Despite his protest, they put Dad on IV infusions to nurse him back to a disputable form of health.
As soon as he is stronger, Dad starts leaving the hospital unannounced. We are lucky. A staff member recognizes him as a patient standing at the hospital’s bus stop with only a Polo shirt and an incontinence diaper on his body. Dad tells the young nurse that he needs to get to the train station. She convinces my father to walk back inside to put on pants. By the time, the two reach his wing, Dad has forgotten where he was ten minutes prior. No one bothers to consult with the mental health department.
Before we end our daily visit, Dad whispers to my husband: “No need to repeat your train story. Metaphors are no longer necessary.” Some part of Dad has remained coherent all along.
As a precaution, the head nurse puts a huge note on the back of my father’s shirt with his name and the message: Patient at station 4, room 423! The very next day, her foresight pays off: like a lost child, Dad is found wandering through the expansive parking lot, searching for his car. Once again, no one calls the in-house psychiatrists for advice.
From that day forward, Dad is confined to a tall walking contraption with a seat that surrounds his entire body, similar to a walking aid for toddlers. The lock is a clever design that requires several steps before it opens. Dad’s recent impatience impedes him from figuring out the sequence.
With the persistence of a hunting predator, I pursue doctors and nurses in charge of Dad’s case. I plead with them to have an in-house psychiatrist see Dad for evaluation. The official diagnosis is essential and the only way to legally place Dad into a restricted nursing facility from which he won’t be able to wander off easily. Day after day, I return from the hospital empty-handed. As if I were lost in a huge corn maze, I turn corner after corner only to find myself at another dead end. Myriad stalks taller than me impede my view of the path to the exit. Nonetheless, I move forward, disoriented, yet trusting in some kind of divine intervention. A few days before our departure back to the US, my persistence is rewarded. The head nurse and resident support my efforts in a written report. Dad’s mental capacities are evaluated at last. I receive the official document to make proper arrangements.
I detest myself. Father’s return to the previous nursing home is no longer an option. They do not offer a restricted area for safe-keeping.
My search for a vacancy in an adequate nursing home starts from scratch. I call once again some of the names on my list from seven weeks ago. Most of these settings don’t offer restricted areas. I remember a friend recommending a reputable house, run by a large charity. They didn’t have any vacancy at the time, and in addition there was a long waiting list for local villagers only. I dial the number anyway. “In urgent cases, we make exceptions”, I hear the voice on the other end say. My heart adds another beat.
A couple of days later, the only vacancy in this benevolent “prison” for dementia patients has Dad’s name tag on the door. Dad is brought straight from the hospital into his new domicile. Despite the relief of knowing Dad to be safe and well taken care of, I detest myself for this move. His and other people’s safety translate into involuntary confinement for him, with keypad locks that only so-called “sane” people are able to open. The majority of his wing-mates are either incoherent or zombies with whom Dad is unable to interact verbally. Human interaction and dialogue are exactly what he craves the most. A strange twist of fate has turned the person, whom I once believed to be the gatekeeper of my personal prison, into a prisoner himself with me as his guardian. Who would have thought I would dislike my new role that much!
About the author
Anja Kerstin Kuentzel,
Advanced Grief Recovery Method specialist, nature lover, photographer, and bilingual wordsmith combines her passions to offer a different perspective on life that might inspire, raise awareness or even heal.