I often worked as a caregiver or provider while involved in Gospel ministry. Sometimes the person I was caring for was easy to take care of. Other times it was a heartbreaking depressing situation as I watched the individual gradually deteriorate and slide away from reality.It is often thought by many, that care giving should be easy and non demanding work. But that thought is limited to those people who have never been involved with caring for a chronically ill person, or someone with a severe disability or handicap. Any time a site that is devoted to caregivers and their needs is read or browsed, the reader will find that the majority of people who are caring for family or friends who are chronically ill are generally exhausted, battling depression and struggling with all the costs and financial challenges as well as trying to maintain some semblance of sanity.I can think of no situation that is worse than caring for people with Brain Damage or with Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The strain that those particular diseases or conditions will put on the primary caregiver or family of the one with disability is hard to describe or comprehend.
I have attached a photo of a very powerful and well known World War II fighter plane because the subject of this article flew one.
Since his family still grieves his passing although it is literally 20 years since his death, I wish to allow them to remain anonymous. You might think that it is odd that I would write about someone who has passed from this life so long ago when surely I have been involved with others since then. You would be right in assuming I have been involved with others since that time, but none are so indelibly stamped in my memory as ‘The Captain’!
The Captain was one of those ‘go to’ guys that always got it done and never missed an opportunity for success in his field. He worked for a National Laboratory on a mountain top in New Mexico. He had a beautiful ranch style home that he purchased for himself and his wife that was a typical tract home. A house that was built in a pattern that was repeated for a few blocks on that particular street that they lived. But he had transformed it with his own fine woodworking abilities to a much more beautiful house.
He was a brilliant man. I would visit at times before he started to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s and we would discuss Science, Astronomy, Geology and Archaeology.
Perhaps the first indication that something was going wrong was the conversations when he would begin to refer to fellow pilots who he flew with in World War II as if they were still alive. When I was would correct him, he would seem to come back to the present, but after a few months the frequency of those episodes would increase. One day after about a year of recurring memory glitches, his wife asked me to come by on my way home from work.
At that time I was involved in dealing with salvage materials from the Laboratory or government surplus items. But I made a point to stop by due to the urgency in her voice and a certain nervousness or unease I picked up in the conversation. When I stopped by, the Captain was sitting in his bathrobe and slippers even though it was nearly 6:00 PM in the evening and he was speaking a language that I later learned was Japanese. His wife informed me he had gone on a hunger strike because in his mind he was back in a POW camp and being held as a prisoner by the Japanese.
He had slipped back in time in his mind to a place and a period of his life that had occurred while he was in service as an American fighter pilot. It was on that afternoon that his wife had told me about his military service and explained he had spent the last 11 months of the war as a POW. I helped her get him to the car, rode with them to the hospital where he was admitted and held overnight for observation. It was not too many hours before the doctors came out with a Psychiatrist in tow and told the Captain’s wife that he had Alzheimer’s disease.
She was suddenly thrust into this existence that she was totally unprepared for and for which there is very little training. The reality was that after consulting with doctors she learned that every patient is different and every situation is treated according to the best plan for that individual which of course requires observation and some trial and error treatment as well.
I was recently married, my wife and I had just had a baby, and Naomi, our daughter was taking a lot of time while she was getting used to her new life and world.
But I reworked my schedule and stopped regularly to help his wife care for him. One of the things that would begin to occur with regular frequency was the new life style that erupted in the family. And ‘erupted’ is the only way to describe it. The Captain had been a squadron leader and so at 4:30 AM he would bolt out of bed and be running through the house evidently seeing the barracks where he had been quartered as a pilot in his mind and shouting orders to the other pilots. This went on for some time in which no effort that was made could bring him back to reality. Sometimes he would snap out of that ‘combat’ mode and be dazed and confused and have to be gently reminded of where he was and at times he would have to be introduced to his family and reminded who his wife and children were. It was heartbreaking to watch and deal with.
After some time I found that if I showed up to help his wife and get him calmed down that I could give him orders as though I were his superior officer. It became evident after awhile that he thought I was someone he served with during the war. Evidently I looked like an officer that had only appeared when orders were handed down to squadron leaders and evidently in the service, whoever I reminded him of, had outranked him. Thus it was that if he became especially belligerent and difficult that I could firmly and with as much authority as I could muster in my voice order him to bed, or to eat or whatever it was that I knew his wife needed.
I was intrigued by the fact that in spite of the obvious memory scrambling in his mind, he still retained a love for sciences and many of the subjects we spoke about before the onset of the disease were still topics he loved to discuss. We could often sit for a conversation of an hour or more speaking of Geology of various formations in the world or of Archaeology or Astronomy, and he was cognizant of current discoveries, and yet inexplicably would be living 30 years earlier in his other memories. It was hard to handle at times.
The ‘Captain’s” wife was not doing so well. We had to change door locksets to keep him from wandering at night. Because when he remembered and lived his time as a prisoner, he would be constantly trying to ‘escape’ the Japanese POW camp. Eventually his wife was showing the strain. She was getting wakened from sleep at all hours of the night and then at 4:30 AM she was up for the day.
As he deteriorated in memory and cognizance he would talk of battle damage to his fighter plane, and when I would come on the scene to help his wife he would begin to give me battle reports just as if he had returned from a mission against the enemy. I soon realized that I was hearing one man’s history in World War II through the memories that were being relived during the time I was there. It was a moving, solemn and terrible experience. The thing was, we could not go on. The Captain’s wife had a heart attack one morning. She had been struggling to get him back to bed when he woke for his usual AM scrambling of his pilots and he was strong enough that he wrestled her away from himself and slipped out into the winter night and was “captured’ by a pair of Police officers and brought back to the POW camp, which happened to be the hospital. His wife was hospitalized and he was moved to a managed care facility. He died of pneumonia a short time later due to the cold of that night. She died of a broken heart soon after.