Dementia: Why Humor Heals + The Crazy Shit We Do For Family

 

Swings, second shift, whatever you want to call it; September 8th, 2011 was my last night on the 3-11PM shift I’ve worked for almost six years of my life. 

A few days later I began a new chapter in my work life, as I began working the graveyard shift (11p-7a).

 

When I would tell people (excitedly might I add), that I was going to switch to working nights, most everyone looked at me like I was crazy, and then would inevitably tell me what a ______ (insert negative connotation/feeling/adjective here) shift it is. I would launch into my short, but sweet explanation of WHY I am voluntarily making this decision, and that is when some would say, “That’s understandable.

So, why did I (happily) take a voluntary demotion to work graveyards?

Easy answer: Mio Caro Padre & La Famiglia (my dear father and family).

 

My father Vic was 50 years old when I was born. Therefore, that makes him a ripe, 79-year old man. Dad and I’s bond has been thick from the day I was born and I took a crap all over him.

Dad had a rather raucous past before I came into this world; life as a Marine, participating in and surviving the Korean War, three marriages, and of course the alcohol that added to all of the “good times” and endless, history-making Conci family gut-busting laugh sessions.

 

Daddy’s Little Girl

 

I was not privy to the side of my father that involved alcohol, but only stories told by my family members and confirmed by Vic himself. By the time I came around, his drinking was non-existent.

 

Thankfully I didn’t get to see the side of him that alcohol brought out, but I have been immersed and rather in awe of my father’s humor since I was a little girl — of course his sense of humor is nothing less than genius in my mind. He never takes himself seriously and believes in and respects the raw truth. As Dad always says, “I calls ‘em as I see’s ‘em.

This quality is something that everyone knows and understands about dad. Therefore, if you are looking for an honest answer, he will give it to you –  I just hope your skin is thick enough to handle it.  Although giving unsolicited advice is not his style either — thank God.

My father is child-like in his nature and acting silly is not above him. Going out in public with him on any given day usually will include him yelling “HEY!” loudly in the middle of a large crowd, and shouting random names and/or profanities while grocery shopping, as he pretends that he did none of the above mentioned. And please note this is all with sound mind. 🙂

In our family we affectionately call dad a “Drama King” and tell him that he missed his calling as an actor. If he would have been a performer, I always picture him amidst the “Rat Pack” era/group singing, dancing and engaging socially, just like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin.

Dad’s conversations usually begin in Italian and start with, “Oh Christo” followed by a Vicism.

A Vicism could be:

“Did the eagle shit yet?”  = (Have I been paid)

“Your dying ass” = (I don’t believe you)

“Tits Up” = (Someone/thing being deceased) just to name a small few.

Dad despises pretenses and can spot phony a mile away. Growing up, dad frequently told me, “Keli- always be yourself. Don’t try to keep up with the Jones’ and don’t be phony, just be genuine.”

Those words didn’t mean much to me when I was in middle school and all I wanted to do was fit in, but as I grew older those words resonated within me and I heard them whenever I was not being true to myself. I strive to possess just half the qualities of genuineness my father exudes.

 

One of my dad’s favorite past times – flipping animals off at the Zoo!

 

I did not know the father who chose the bars and alcohol over his kids and school functions, nor did I know the father who continually broke promises along with hearts of the ones he loved.

Perhaps it was the aging process, or time to grow-up, or the fact that my mother (his 3rd wife) was barely able to take care of herself, which forced my father to be a different parent later in life.

Whatever the real reason, I’m beyond grateful I’ve been able to experience the father I’ve loved and cherished my whole life.  There is not a soul closer to me on this earth than my father (well, besides my husband of course). We get each other — far beyond words and usually at a glance, we know where the other is coming from and where we’re about to go. More times than not, we finish the other’s sentence and then start humming the same tune! Dad always says, “I should have named you Victoria.” 

 

Dad was ALWAYS there for me as a child and budding teenager.

When my friends moms’ were taking them school clothes shopping, it was my dad who did those tasks with me. It was dad who showed up at every parent-teacher conference and school function, as well as dropping me off and picking me up from school. I never wanted to leave my dad’s side and felt comfort, security and unconditional love whenever we were together.

He was both my father and my mother growing up.

My mother had her own deep rooted issues she was dealing with and became a very distant parent both physically and emotionally. While dad was aware of this, all he could do was show up for us kids and love us unconditionally.

He is the reason why I did not go down a dark path in life, which would have been easy to do. And his unconditional, selfless love is the reason why you could say I don’t have “daddy issues” (mommy issues are a whooooooooole other Oprah show however!)

 

By the time I was in college and living in Denver my father was living by himself with my younger brother. I remember coming home for a weekend and sitting at my dad’s kitchen table and observing cut-off notices for utilities. When I questioned him about them, he seemed unfazed and almost unaware of the circumstance.

It was then that I consciously knew I was going to have to step in and help him.

I moved back to Pueblo soon after and took over dad’s finances, which turned out to only be the beginning of repaying to him all that he had done for me thus far in life. I felt a fierce protection over him and a burning desire to do whatever I could to make the quality of his life the best it could be. I never looked at it as a task, but instead as a labor of love. I truly enjoyed taking care of whatever needed to be taken care of for my dad.

In the beginning it was not much; I paid his bills every month and made sure he had groceries.

It was not until years had passed, and the truly unthinkable and unexpected happened, that Dad was seen in a different light…


 

The Big D: Dementia 

I was 24 years old in 2007 when my mother Jackie was diagnosed in May of that year with Stage 3-4 Lymphoma cancer.

Two months later she died on July 28th, 2007.

 

The mother whom I had fought bitterly with most of my life and then learned to finally forgive in the last two years of her life, was now gone.

She was not only gone, but my father was left a widower, and not soon after my brother Mike (same dad, different mom… and I affectionately refer to him as Brother) and I began to see changes in dad we rarely noticed before.

They were subtle and slow changes, not too alarming, but enough for us to question dad living alone. So, we brought dad to live with Brother and myself. It was healing for us all, I believe, to be together. Dad needed some extra TLC and this would give us better visibility into dad’s behaviors, etc.

 

It was not long after we were all living together that Brother and I noticed the decline in dad’s memory and cognition. The famous spaghetti sauce dad made growing up now required one of us to help guide him through what to put in it. Dad was beyond obstinate in wanting to change his clothes, shave and take a shower (an Oscar worthy performance on dad’s part in protesting that he hated water and that he took enough showers in his life, he didn’t need to take another one-LOL).

We would notice him isolating during family functions. Half-eaten cheese sandwiches were a regular fixture in the kitchen, and of course we were always on the hunt for his beloved coffee cup that he would warm up throughout the day and then forget it in the microwave.

Brother and I were at a loss of where to turn, what to do, or how to even go about handling this. Neither him, nor I were trying to not believe what we saw considering our backgrounds in psychiatric nursing, but we were left wondering, “Could dad really be losing his memory?”

 

My two dads.

 

We decided to take dad to his doctor and hopefully get some answers; our suspicions had been confirmed: Dementia.

I do not believe that we were shocked, only relieved to put an official name on it and get to work on a course of action.

Dad’s dementia was discovered in the earliest stages and he began a regimen of Aricept and Namenda to “help slow the progression, but not cure it” said the doctor. The early detection of the disease and jumpstart on these medications, I believe, has been what has allowed my father to not decline so rapidly. And some major family love to help the heart!

 

It will be 5 years in July of this year that my mom passed, and 5 years that my father and our family have been getting to know dementia.

I moved out of my Brother’s house 3 years ago and when I did I took my father with me. It was a joint decision we all (bro, dad, me) made together and believed it to be the most therapeutic for everyone involved.

I welcomed this opportunity to take dad on my own and have never looked back since.


 

WHEN LOVE SHOWS UP 

It was just dad and I living on our own, but soon after I met my now husband, Joshua. Josh knew the minute he met me what my priorities are in my life and he knew the highest one being my father.

My husband never made me feel like I had to choose between two people, he has consistently supported me by sharing in the responsibility of taking care of my dad and for just doing that, I am forever grateful for his sacrifices.

I hope I say it more times than not, but for all the times I don’t:

Thank you My Love. Thank you for being you and thank you for making decisions based upon family and our future when you had more than a right to choose just yourself.  

 

My hubby and I married on November 28th, 2009 and 11 months later came our most precious, amazing gift straight from the Divine- sweet Ava Rose. Even with all of the sudden changes dad adjusted well. I think having Ava has added a few more years to dad’s life; he feeds her all of her meals, he speaks Italian to her and reads her books and watches Sesame Street with her, and he even chases her all around the house.

I love watching those two together. I will hear them playing and she will burst out in the heartiest laugh imaginable, and it is at those times that my souls’ wings soar.

 

Feeling the LOVE from dad the day I was having Ava.:) Love. <3

 

Dad + Ava…the moments I treasure.

 

As you can see, the journey my father and I have been on goes beyond most father-daughter relationships. I have felt like the parent a lot, but I am comfortable with that and have not resented that role in my life.


THE CRAZY SHIT YOU DO FOR FAMILY 

At the end of the summer of 2011 when dad began showing slight declining changes in his dementia and increased anxiety, I became concerned.

I have a fierce protection over my father; the protection that a mother feels over her child and I go into overdrive trying to protect him from whatever I think I can control. Dad’s changes weren’t drastic, but they were alarming to my husband and I. Dad would leave the front door wide open after coming in from outside, his questions peaked concerning the “who is alive and who is dead in the family” list, and mostly his anxiety increased when I would get ready to leave for my shift from 3-11 p.m.

 

My husband, Joshua…my rock.

 

When I would get ready to leave and go through the ritual of telling him where I was going, what time I would be home and what I did for a living, he would then tell me to call off and not leave him (my husband and I have always worked opposite shifts [he works days], so someone is home with dad at all times and this also worked out after having Ava and not having to use daycare).

Dad begged me daily to not go to work, “please don’t leave me.”

Although my dad is quite the jokester, the true anxiety he felt was palpable, and it was then that I knew I had to do something about this. After continuously bouncing ideas and maximum stress off my husband, we both agreed that taking a graveyard position would be the best solution at this time. And as synchronicity would have it, not soon after that conversation an opening popped open and I slid right into it

So-long stress, anxiety, fear and any other negative feeling that was clouding that time.

 

Thank God my husband knows how to handle my crazy + for moments like these.

 

I have officially been on graveyards for five months now. It was an easy transition for me and one of the best decisions I (and my husband) have made thus far.

Are there times when I want sleep more than anything? Yes.

Are there times when my schedule is off whack and I don’t think I can cram another possible thing into it? Abso-frickin-lutely!

Do I think I am in over my head at times (taking care of a 16-month old, being a loving, supportive wife, taking care of my father and not trying to lose it when he asks me the same question for the 10th time, going to school to be a Health Coach/Counselor and starting my own business/practice, homework, eating healthy, cooking, full-time job AND maintaining relationships with family and friends and oh yeah, taking care of myself)? HELL YES!!!

 

But, let me tell you what keeps me going, not losing it and being grateful on top of it: Staying positive, having a husband who knows how to handle me and allows me to be me, having more time with my family than I ever had, being able to spend holidays with my loved ones, being able to read Ava a story and put her to sleep at night and tucking my Dad in bed and him thinking I just don’t work anymore, or when I get up after I’VE slept during the day, he asks, “Did you have a good nap?”, knowing this is only temporary, being grateful for dad’s amazing health, the love and support from my family (thank you Brother for helping take Dad periodically, so Josh and I can have time together), surrendering, deep breathing and remembering that through all of our triumphs and let downs, I Love You’s and I’m Sorry’s- Family Is Everything- and that includes the friends that have become family!

Do I think that dad can stay like this forever and that his dementia will never change? I wish, but I’ve read the books. Of course I am an eternal optimist, but I have made myself knowledgeable for what can be.

 

How I’m Handling My Father’s Dementia…

What I do know for sure is that I will go down swinging. However, I won’t sink the entire ship just because I don’t want to see beyond the horizon, and in that time I pray for strength, guidance, mercy and peace.

 

Vic+Keli

Thank you dad, for you are one of my largest, continuous learning lessons in this life and thank you graveyards for being part of this journey…no matter how much shit people talk about your wacky shift, I will forever be grateful to you.

 

Love + Loving Dementia,

Keli

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