by Michelle Colgate

The shadow of doubt in my father’s eyes, the inability to find the right word, losing his way home from the grocery store and forgetting that his wife had died: these events are quick snapshots of the impact that dementia had on my father.  Dementia’s slow creep of darkness took my father’s mind, his pride and, ultimately, his life.  

My father was diagnosed with dementia in 2017.  Two years prior, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  Throughout her seven year battle with cancer, she was his steadfast caregiver as both of their terminal diseases progressed.  Her diligence and their symbiotic relationship of 61 years kept my father in his rhythm.  She relied on routine, exercise and socialization, to support my father’s mental capacities.  She was his rock and did an amazing job until she passed away March 28, 2021, and I took over as my father’s sole caregiver.

Being an only child had created a comfortable autonomy: a sense that I was the sole problem-solver and advocate for my parents.  I believed I was good at it.  When my mother’s cancer diagnosis, I became intimately involved in all aspects of my parent’s healthcare.  I attended every medical appointment, chemotherapy visit, and all testing for both of my parents.  Even though I had educated myself, attended every neurological appointment and had over 30 years of healthcare administration under my belt, nothing could have prepared me for my father’s swift decline after the loss of my mother.  I quickly learned that her devotion and personal pride had shielded me from the severity of my father’s condition.

While my mother was still alive, I reached out to Dementia Alliance of North Carolina (DA-NC) in 2019.  I was hungry for information about the more personal aspects of dementia, and I needed to connect with people who have already experienced what I was going through.  I was extremely grateful that DA-NC provided resources to answer many of the questions that my father’s neurologist would not or could not address.  In 2020, I also joined a support group that met once a month via Zoom during the pandemic.  

After my mother died in March of this year, I reconnected with DA-NC and I was fortunate to talk to Dee Dee, their Dementia Navigator.  I needed help determining my father’s level of independence and what I needed to do in order to meet his needs.   I explained that my father did not remember my mother’s death and continued to look for her everyday.  I would have to gently explain that she had passed away and it broke my heart every time. My father would fall apart asking how it happened and why he didn’t know about it.  Dee Dee had invaluable guidance and gave me specific words that I could use when talking with my father.  Her guidance helped me create a harmonious conversation, leaving him feeling loved and safe.  She also helped my husband and I decide when to move my father into an assisted living environment and how to help him settle into his new life.  I am so grateful for all of the support I received from Dementia Alliance

With increased understanding, we moved my father to a senior living center that provided him with memory care and the support he needed.  He was truly happy there and had many friends, but my father’s mental state and physical health deteriorated at an alarming rate.  My father passed away August 21, 2021. It was less than five months after the loss of his wife after 61 years.  Personally, I think that his sadness in missing my mother overwhelmed him, and he surrendered to his disease.  

I lost both of my parents to a terminal illness in less than five months.  It was devastating and overwhelming to endure on your own.  Take it from a notoriously independent only child, you must surround yourself with a community of support.  I could not have asked for a better companion to help me through this ordeal than Dementia Alliance of North Carolina.