Dementia Upstaged

Dick Button, 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz.jpg

The television is now set to record every single upcoming figure skating event scheduled to air. With the Olympics right around the corner, even more will fill my recording queue. A treasure trove. This is thrilling for my husband and I, actually a triumph, at a time when we have few.

My 86 year old father-in-law, Tom Sr (I married Tom Jr), has vascular dementia, caused by a mild, hidden stroke the doctor said went easily undetected some twelve or even fifteen years ago. The dementia is like Alzheimer's: limited or no memory, and a terrible short-term memory that causes repetition of the same questions and comments.

Tom Sr can no longer read the room or perceive what is going on around him but sits quietly, trying to take it in and after a short while muttering, “I don’t know what’s going on.” He seems to read but perhaps just looks at the local paper and a news magazine. Like many elderly folks, he sleeps a lot. He needs our full-time attention to make sure he is fed, takes his meds, is clean and shaven, gets to appointments, visits with family, and is not isolated or left alone.

Fortunately, his lovely, generous, and at times, goofy nature is still intact. He flirts sweetly with nurses and tells silly jokes to everyone. He says old-fashioned things like, "If you need me, I'll be in the receiving room." In response, I text my husband who knows well the reference: Great news, your father will be receiving guests this afternoon. We chuckle, sense of humor is important. Tom Sr loves his granddaughters and two year old great-granddaughter with whom he looks through simple books that display numbers, letters, and animals. It is not lost on us that as one is sprouting, the other is withering. We take lots of pictures.

So, what’s with the figure skating?

Daytime TV is only on in our house, specifically the receiving room, to see if it might engage Tom Sr. I despise daytime TV, even watching the noon news feels like playing hooky from real work. But I think how wonderful if Tom Sr picked up a soap opera and we might chat about the hideous characters. I overhear a matriarch denying her son ownership of the family business because of his affair with “that rotten, filthy waitress” (“I love her, Mother, and her name’s Misty”). I look in hopefully, but Tom Sr is asleep in his chair. We won’t be discussing Misty’s limited attributes or many motives. I slump into the couch and pick up the remote, switching to my go-to daytime selection: any sports channel. And now enters figure skating.

A beautiful man and woman, athletes, glide seemingly effortlessly across the ice, each the other’s shadow for every Salchow, Lutz and Axel jump. They float, locked beautifully in each other’s arms, aimed directly at the camera, coming what seems straight into the receiving room. They are young and healthy and beautiful. I hear, without realizing I am hearing it, a sweet sigh to my right and continue watching as the camera pans out to show the mesmerizing pair completing their final elegant spin. Another sigh as the music ends and the spectators erupt in applause. Then I hear, “They are so graceful.” I turn. It is Tom Sr awake, engaged, taking in figure skating. I am frozen but muster an enthusiastic Yes!, not so much about the skaters but more in response to Tom Sr’s engagement with them. We watch the competition to its completion. And true to form, Tom Sr remarks again and again, but sincerely and with full knowledge, “They are so graceful.” He is glued. He is engaged.

The why-figure-skating is explained when my husband arrives home. “He was a figure skater, not competitive or anything,” Tom Jr chuckles, “oh yes, he just loved getting on the ice and spinning and jumping. He didn’t care that his buddies played hockey. He loved it.” It was a passion, his passion. And my joy, our joy, is seeing him focus on the television, knowing exactly what is happening, present, aware, alert, in the here and now, loving it. “They are so graceful.”

For us, this triumph, this moment of grace.

I searched old family photos to see if there might be one of a young Tom Sr on the ice looking, I imagine, no less striking and self-assured than a 1950s Dick Button. But there is no photo. So, in my mind, I see him. Young, healthy, beautiful Tom Sr, way before he was a senior, on the ice. The sound of the blades, the athletic push of the jump, the arms in air propelling the body, the landing, soft and smooth. A moment of triumph.

We’ll all be watching the Olympic figure skaters together. Or shall I say, Tom Sr will be and Tom Jr and I will be glued, watching him watch them.


About the Author, Ann Lukegord  ~

After decades of seemingly rushing around the planet to be where and who I thought I needed to be, I have finally put my feet up and settled down with my husband Tom in a the Gloucester MA village of Lanesville. Along the way, I’ve spent my years skiing in Colorado, running a restaurant in Oregon, writing for a Massachusetts governor, pitching Boston and environs as a destination to Hollywood producers, working with the press at the JFK Library, and teaching high school English. My favorite role has been that of aunt to a niece and two nephews, a role that has happily expanded to stepmother, daughter-in-law, and grandmother.


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