Making New Memories: An Alzheimer’s Caregiver and Her Journey with Her Father

Paula McClain tries not to dwell on the fact that her dad, Wiley, has Alzheimer’s disease. She realizes that he’s losing his memories of the full life he’s led for the past 87 years. She would rather focus on creating new memories, both of him and with him.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Paula says of the disease that led her to move her dad into an assisted living facility two years ago so he could receive around-the-clock attention. “But I’m learning a lot along the journey.”

“Hello Baby,” says Wiley as he greets his daughter on one of her regular visits. He doesn’t remember that his wife and Paula’s mother, Princess, died 15 years ago, and sometimes worries that he did something wrong to cause her to leave him. “How come I didn’t know?” he asks when she tells him that his wife passed away.

While his recent memories are short-lived, Wiley remains physically active and enjoys feeling productive. After a 30-year career in maintenance at Denver Public Schools, he enjoys straightening up after events at his retirement home.

Wiley’s congenial personality shows in his obvious delight in spending the day with his daughter. They share time together, including their ‘Hamburger Tour’ as they search for Denver’s best burger.

“I may get more out of the experiences,” said Paula.  “It’s an honor to be able to care for my dad.”

An unexpected benefit

While no one is ever going to welcome Alzheimer’s into their life, Paula has found an unexpected benefit to her dad’s disease.

“I’m seeing a new side of my dad,” she said. “When I was growing up, he was the provider and more serious. Now I’m realizing that he’s got a funny personality. As a child looking at a parent, you don’t usually get to see that. I don’t remember laughing with my dad, but I do now.”

Caregivers must decide for themselves

Perhaps the biggest challenge that caregivers face is knowing when the time is right to make a change.

“I wanted to keep dad at home as long as I could and bring services to him, but I never had the confidence to know when the time was right (to make a change),” she said. “You don’t know how you’ll respond as a caregiver. We all hope and desire different things. It’s not a judgment, but every individual has their limits.”

DSC_1413Paula was able to expand her knowledge of Alzheimer’s and get insights from other caregivers by engaging in a wide range of programs and services offered at no charge by the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, including support groups and classes like “Know the 10 Signs” of Alzheimer’s and “Understanding and Responding to Dementia-Related Behavior.” To learn more about classes and workshops, click here or call the Association’s 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900.

“Until it (Alzheimer’s) comes home, you really don’t know where to start,” she said. “No one would ever think to come to the Alzheimer’s Association before they need it, but it has been a great resource that has enabled me to be prepared for each stage (of the disease).”

Since Wiley’s diagnosis four years ago, Paula has learned that she needs to pace herself in order to be present for her dad and give him her support.

“It’s a hard disease,” she said. “I need to take it in doses. I don’t want to get overwhelmed.”

But Paula won’t, because she doesn’t want to miss any of this final trip she’ll get to take with her dad.

“I’m trying to be present,” she said. “I’m not sure what’s down the road, but I’m trying to make the most of what’s here.”

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