My father-in-law is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Over the past several years, he has gone from an independent, fully functioning male to a shadow of himself. Last year, he had an episode that made it apparent that, despite her best wishes and intentions, his wife Sandy could no longer care for him at home. After an eleven day stay in the hospital, he went to a rehab nursing home near his home. This was not a long term solution and after a month’s stay at that facility, he was accepted at a veteran’s nursing home fifty minutes away. He was admitted to the Alzheimer’s unit of the facility. His stay in this home has been fascinating as we have gotten to meet the men who share the ward with Dad.
The home has five separate units. Four of the five function as regular nursing homes do with round the clock care for aging people. The fifth unit where Dad is located is the Alzheimer’s ward. Here are men who have seen Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia rob them of their memories, leaving only holes in their place. I have overheard some of the most amazing conversations during visits on the unit. One day, I listened while Dad napped in his chair to Mr. Ira and Mr. John swap stories of their time on aircraft carriers during the Korean War. It seems Mr. Ira was an aircraft mechanic aboard the USS Essex, while Mr. John was an anti-aircraft machine gunner aboard another aircraft carrier. He didn’t mention the name of his ship. Mr. Ira told of the number of times planes came in with, “holes so big a man could put his head through them!” He expressed his amazement that the planes ever brought their pilots home in such condition. Mr. John avowed that he’d had a much quieter time during his service because North Korea didn’t have any anti-ship capable aircraft that could strike his floating airport.
Listening to Mr. Ira and Mr. John and several other former servicemen always amazes me. A few of the men, like Mr. Ira and Mr. John are Korean War veterans, mostly in their late eighties and early nineties. The home also houses a bare handful of World War II veterans — men in their late nineties and over the century mark. These are few and far between and none of them are on Unit Five because Alzheimer’s does not allow its victims to reach such advanced age. At the other end of the spectrum are another handful of Desert Storm vets whose bodies are failing early and who have been forced into long term care before their time. The vast majority of the men, however, are Vietnam Veterans from all five branches of the armed forces.
These men always make me pause; especially the ones with “Infantry Veteran” on their caps and sweatshirts. To think that these men, now mostly confined to wheelchairs or at best walking with walkers, fifty and sixty years ago were slogging across Southeast Asia through flooded rice paddies dodging bullets from the far tree lines as young men — eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old — a far cry from the worn out bodies and, in many cases, minds that roam the halls of this veteran’s nursing home. Mr. Faircloth has a cap with a Combat Infantryman’s Badge embroidered on it. I would imagine were he able to stand anymore, he would top six feet easily. I can’t carry on a conversation with him, I’m afraid. He is too far into the ravages of dementia to understand what I would say, but it’s easy to see the young man he once was carrying an M-16 down a red dirt road with his company.
One precious fellow I can have a conversation with is Mr. Bob. Mr. Bob is on Unit Five so he has dementia, but it hasn’t robbed him of his bright smile and eyes. He can still walk, although he does so very slowly and against the nurses’ wishes. They would rather he stay seated because falls at these gentlemen’s ages are deal breakers many times. Mr. Bob was in the Air Force in Vietnam. He’s never forgotten he was a pilot of a airplane either. He’ll smile at me and ask me in his halting way if I want him to take me on “an airplane ride.” I have no doubt he probably still remembers how to start up and fly an F-105 Thunderchief or an F-4 Phantom II. The body may be weak and much of the mind unreachable, but it’s amazing how much remains and what remains.
It’s interesting on the ward at times. As an orderly pointed out to me early in Dad’s stay there, the facility is full of alpha males who may have forgotten much, but they still remember that once upon a time they were some bad assed sons of bitches and every now and then, those old fires flame up. I’ve seen the nurses have to step between two old bulls more than once and wheel them to opposite ends of the unit until passions cool and they forget whatever it was that angered them in the first place. That’s what makes going to visit Dad so sad at times.
A long term care nursing home — any long term care nursing home — is simply the anteroom to the Other Side. The men here aren’t going home. They will leave this last outpost only one way, feet first into a hearse. It’s visible in the faces of the men and the staff. The staff work tirelessly to make these former warriors comfortable in their time left, but no one is under any delusion how this movie ends. The nurses and CNAs have a kind, but somewhat detached way of dealing with the men they all refer to, regardless of former rank or name as, “Papa.” They have to though. These men are here to die and to grow too close to each one is to court madness. Some of the men are gentle, some are fiery, the staff treats them the same, often changing adult diapers while dodging the occasional flying fist. They often don’t know any better. All the safety controls on the machine, all the filters, are gone now. All that is left is a body — once strong and virile, a true warrior — now in a sad warehouse, waiting to die.
Love y’all and keep your feet clean.