One of the most important things the mother of a newborn does is establish some sort of schedule for her baby. This type of structure is imperative for a child, giving them assurance of when to eat and when to sleep. Knowing what to expect, the baby is comforted and deepens his trust in his mother.
People with Alzheimer’s also cling to a schedule. As they grapple with loss of memory and myriad emotions, a routine often brings them comfort. Babies tend to be resilient and can cope with disruptions to their schedule. But for people with Alzheimer’s, a sudden change or a new environment can send them into an emotional tailspin.
Two years ago, my Father complained of chest pains and started losing color in his face. We went to the hospital for testing and while the pain dissipated, an overnight stay was necessary to pinpoint the problem. My Father seemed to be handling everything well and spent that first night in the hospital without incident. My Mother and I arrived the next morning for more testing and hopefully some answers. The doors leading to his floor were open and we passed the nursing station on the way to Dad’s room. Nurses scurried around taking care of patients while a doctor made his rounds.
Dressed in a hospital gown, my Father sat up in bed with wires attached to his chest, happy to see us. He endured more testing like a trooper, telling jokes to make the nurses and techs laugh. He had not experienced any more chest pain, so we were just waiting on the heart doctor to pop in and tell us our next steps. Mom was exhausted so I took her home and returned to the hospital for a few hours. While Dad was perched in his bed happily watching TV over dinner, it became clear to me that the doctor would not come by that evening. He would have to spend another night in the hospital. Mentally and emotionally drained, I headed home to get some sleep. In less than an hour, his nurse called, urgently asking me to come back to the hospital. Apparently, Dad was “agitated” and wouldn’t calm down.
I raced back to the hospital to a much different scene. The doors to the floor that had always been open were now closed and locked. I dialed the nursing station to gain entrance and had barely finished telling them my name when the door clicked so I could enter. I’ll never forget what I saw. My Father was standing behind the nursing station leaning over a nurse who sat staring at her computer. He was out of his hospital gown and wore his own clothes. He pointed his finger at her and told her very firmly, “I am out of here!”
She looked at me out of desperation and I started talking to Dad, coaxing him back to his room. He had a male nurse who wisely phoned the doctor and begged for the test results so Dad could be discharged that night. I kept talking to Dad in soothing tones and helped him out of his clothes and back into his hospital gown. A few moments later, the nurse told me that we could leave and just make an appointment with the doctor. When I told Dad he was going home, he breathed a sigh of relief and said, “That is an answer to prayer.” I helped him out of his gown and he ripped off all the wires that were stuck to his chest and put on his clothes.
Whatever altercation he’d had with his nurse was still fresh on his mind.
“I hated to do it, but I had to fire him!” he said.
In his mind, Dad was still running his own phone company and thought his male nurse was an insubordinate employee that needed discipling.
There was no way in the world I was going to try to reason with him. If he thought his nurse was an employee that needed firing, then fire away!
“Well Dad, sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do,” I said.
As we waited on the nurse to bring the discharge papers, he put on his shoes and went through a mental checklist.
“Is the truck locked?” he asked, referring to his work truck with all his tools.
“It’s locked and secure,” I answered.
This disruption to Dad’s schedule had thrown him for a loop. After a day of testing and being confined to a hospital bed, something inside him snapped. He couldn’t handle this reality, so he created his own new reality to regain control. He was no longer a vulnerable patient. He was the boss man taking care of business. What he needed was for me to join him. He needed me to be present here in his newly created reality right now.
Be here now. Tell me everything is going to be ok. Tell me I can go back to my home, my bed and my routine. Tell me this is over.
It was over. After driving him home, he sat down in his living room chair like a weary traveler who’d just returned from a long trip. The next day, he wouldn’t remember any of this. And that was a good thing. He didn’t need to remember.
Every single one of us was created with the need to be comforted. It’s in our DNA. It’s how we’re wired. But for people like my Father, that need is even more unique. A baby learns how to self-soothe by sucking its thumb or a pacifier. But when someone has Alzheimer’s, their ability to self-soothe can fade away. I find it remarkable that when Dad needed comforting, he prayed. We can look back on that time now and find the humor in Dad firing his nurse. But I learned a very important lesson that day.
My Father did have blockage in his heart which required six stents and two hospital stays that year. And each time he had to spend the night in the hospital, I stayed right there with him. He never had another incident again.