My Granddad with vascular dementia

He remembered I was in med school, asked me how it was going. Usually I have to remind him. He reminded me of how he was a medic in the Navy during the Korean War, forgetting he had told me this story more times than I could count. I loved hearing about his life though and listened intently. We talked about how we were the only two people in our family with any background in healthcare. I said to him, “In a little less than three years, I’ll be Dr. Cobb, how crazy is that?”

He looked up from his lost gaze and said “I hope I’m here to be able to call you that,” and for the first time in my life I understood that he may not actually make it that long, that he was dying.

He knew it better than I did. I knew his health was declining but I had put it aside, been completely in denial. I did everything I could to keep back my tears. He maintained his unfluctuating expression, knowing how hard his words had hit me and seeing the realization in my eyes.

His awareness and memory comes and goes but today he was laughing and having a great day. A couple days earlier I had gone to see him at Westminster Canterbury just a few blocks from my childhood home and he wouldn’t even wake up when I came in. He sat on his recliner jittering from his dreams. I had clung to the idea that the good days were the norm but unfortunately they were quickly becoming the anomaly.

My granddad and I never talked much before my grandmother died on this day seven years ago, and the conversations were always limited. And now, with his hearing severely impaired, and his vascular dementia worsening, the conversations are labored and repetitive. But I loved being with him now more than ever. He has always been a gentle, sincere man while my grandmother was the wild, talkative one. He told me stories about his time working as a Captain for the Henrico County Police, of his time in the Navy, of my grandmother, of his brothers and sisters, albeit with details missing or misconstrued.

We sat on the patio of my parent’s house in Richmond. I brought him here to keep him busy while my dad was moving all his stuff to a more attentive wing of Westminster Canterbury. He slowly sipped on a Busch Lite while I enjoyed a glass of water. It was 11am but past 80 you can do whatever the hell you want, and besides, he only ever drank one. It was a cooler day for mid-July, but the sun was sharp overhead. I put a Virginia Tech ballcap on his head to keep his bald scalp from burning and it sat crooked on top of the white dome. He continued thanking me for the crackers I brought out for him and reveled at how good they were. They were original Wheat Thins but he had always loved hyperbole and every meal he eats seems to be the best one he’s ever had.

Eventually he started looking tired and conversing became more labored for him so I called my dad to see if his new apartment was ready. When we made it back, my granddad didn’t fully understand why we were walking to a different place but when he made it in and saw all his stuff, he figured it out.

“How do you like your new place Granddaddy?”

“It isn’t any better or worse. It looks the same,” he responded with a gruff tone. That was about the best we could have hoped for. He didn’t know why we moved him, but didn’t press too hard for an answer.

I couldn’t imagine how disorienting it must be to him. This is the fourth place he’s lived in since he moved here a few years ago, stepping up to more and more attentive wings. But for better or worse, this is the last stop. They’ll tend to his every need here, making sure he gets up, keeping him clean and shaved, and cooking him healthy meals at set times.

Despite this place being what we view as a paradise of a retirement community, he’s not happy. There is no semblance of the life he lived before, and for the first time in nearly 70 years he doesn’t have the faintest semblance of control over his own life. I look around at all the lifeless faces of the residents and see just shells of the lives that came before. He wanted to live out at his home in Hanover County, a half-hour’s drive away from us. But he didn’t even know how to do the dishes or wash his clothes; my grandmother had done all of this for him since they married. Now he complains about the staff pulling him out of his bed in the morning to get him up for breakfast and we move him into a place where his life is even more regimented.

It’s been a strange and foreign dynamic to take care of him, helping him to the car, getting him food, shuttling him to his doctor’s appointments. I’m happy to do it but it’s an awkward transition and I constantly feel like I’m fumbling. I know he understands it and he constantly expresses gratitude for my help. But I witness his discomfort and frustration with needing assistance.

I’m very scared for him and for my dad and for my family. I’ve grown to know and appreciate my granddad better than ever since he developed vascular dementia. He’s a pivotal part of my life and my family and I want to cling to the idea that he’ll be around forever. But the chances that he’ll make it much longer are dauntingly slim. So all I can think to do is enjoy all the time I can with him and try to make his last years as enjoyable as possible.

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