This holiday season is unlike any other we have ever experienced. The number of cases and deaths associated with COVID-19 are climbing and people all around the world are being asked to not travel this holiday season. With warnings coming from all directions, many people are making the difficult choice to not visit family for the holidays. But I just couldn’t make that choice. Because my father has Alzheimer’s, and we don’t have the luxury of time this holiday season.
My father was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease last fall. My parents are divorced, so my siblings and I had to make the difficult decision of whether to place him in a long-term care facility or not. But he was high functioning in his daily activities, so we decided he didn’t need to be in a home — thank goodness — and my sister stepped up to be his primary caretaker.
My sister registered my dad in a memory care day program for adults, set routines for him, and hired someone to help care for him when she had to work or travel. When the pandemic hit, all of that came to a screeching halt. My dad’s very important routines were disrupted, and all of his care fell to my sister.
In case you don’t know, Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that basically kills brain cells. Symptoms generally start with trouble recalling new information. As the disease progresses, the mental decline begins to interfere with everyday life. Eventually, the neurological damage makes it so the brain can’t communicate with the rest of the body leading to the inability to even sit up, feeding failure and dehydration. This is obviously very taxing for the person with Alzheimer’s but also for their caretakers.
So as the numbers began to improve over the summer, we made plans to have my dad travel to California for the holiday season. It would give my brother and me time with him, and give my sister a much-needed break. But then, with the onset of fall, COVID-19 numbers began to slowly creep up, and so did our fear around my sister and dad traveling.
The closer we got to the holidays, the more we went back and forth. We wanted to do what was best for everyone, most of all my dad. My siblings and I had a phone conversation two weeks prior to Thanksgiving about whether he should travel or not for the holidays. We all initially chose what we felt was the “responsible” decision to keep him home.
Immediately after hanging up from that phone call, I burst into tears. Both of my grandfathers had dementia, so I am painfully aware of where things are going with this disease and how fast it can happen. I fear this may be the last holiday that we get the man that I know as my father. In the past, I made the mistake of pushing back a visit with a loved one and missed the opportunity to be with them one more time before they passed away. And I swore to myself I would never do that again, especially with my dad.
I quickly called my sister back and it was clear that she was crying too. She also wanted us together for the holidays and she was desperately in need of a break. Thankfully, my brother was also on board.
We took several steps to make the process as safe as possible and even consulted a medical professional. We moved their flight to the week prior to Thanksgiving to avoid crowded airplanes and decided to purchase the return flight in January. My sister bought KN95 masks and plastic face shields to wear on the plane and disinfected their seating area.
Once they arrived we all quarantined and waited until everyone received a negative COVID test before getting together. We had a significantly pared-down Thanksgiving with only immediate family members. Since then, we’ve minimized trips out of the house and kept visitors to a bare minimum.
I will admit that taking this risk was terrifying for me and my siblings. However, we were much more afraid of losing time with our dad. I know we are fortunate to be able to make these decisions and I don’t take that for granted. I feel extremely blessed to be able to get this time with him.
It is hard for everyone to watch their parents change as they grow older. The changes can be shocking from year to year if you are not able to visit them regularly. And for someone with a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s, the changes can be significant over a very short period.
Some would say not only is this not worth the risk, but completely selfish and irresponsible of us. And you have the right to your opinion. But seeing my three-year-old crawl onto my dad’s lap and force him to play with play dough … that let me know I made the right decision for our family.
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