This piece originally was published Nov. 7, 2014, on Healthline Contributors. That site no longer is live, so this piece is reprinted with permission here. Dad died in September 2015.
By David Heitz
The other day I was sitting with dad in the dining room of his memory care community, right before lunch. Along comes Dolores, one of the feistier residents, and Dolly, also quite feisty. They were side by side with their walkers while a line of six residents in wheelchairs, two abreast, followed them in.
“It’s the wagon train,” my dad said, as we both bust up laughing.
Dad can’t remember that my mom is dead, or even that his mom is dead. He worries some days about how he is going to get to work, or where his car is parked.
But even 18 months after placement in the facility, including the past 10 of them on hospice care, his sense of humor is intense on most days, his wit downright razor sharp on many.
He has a quip for every occasion, a nickname for everyone who works where he lives. One CNA in particular sometimes wears long skirts with her hair in a bun. Dad calls her “Mormon girl” and “Puritan.”
Unfortunately, he also says things widely considered worse than that. In fact, on Wednesday he pointed to another resident and said, “See her? She looks like a damaged Jack o’ lantern.”
Some days he points out the “tramps,” one by one. Other times he reports things he saw or heard at the assisted living residence. Sometimes you’re not really sure whether it actually happened or not. After 18 months I’ve seen and heard it all!
Be warned. My dad’s not politically correct. He’s a retired factory worker, and his sense of humor certainly does offend some people. But the point is that he still knows how to make himself laugh, and how to make others who appreciate his humor laugh with him. That makes him feel good, and I know it gives purpose to his life.
When it comes to discussing why he lives in an assisted living facility or why he’s not able to remember things anymore – or even go to the bathroom by himself – we generally don’t. But he likes to make jokes about being where he is.
One day he turned to me and said, “I live in a memory hospital!” For the first six months or so, he wasn’t sure where he was. He thought everyone who is dead lived there too, on various floors. He told me once, “I banged on Barbara’s door all night, but she wouldn’t let me in. Must be mad at me I guess.”
Barbara is my mother, who died in 1995. She had divorced my dad (for the second time … long story) 11 years prior to her death.
And there was plenty of fighting and him being locked out of the house prior to the divorce. He also has come to think that one of the CNAs who works there IS Barbara. While this CNA was pregnant, dad told everyone that she was carrying his child.
And while it’s funny, I think he really did believe it. So when we laugh at things he says, it doesn’t matter whether they’re true or false, right or wrong, offensive or not.
We’re laughing at what he has to say, and he laughs, too. And instead of hanging his head, like so many residents of dad’s facility unfortunately do, he’s acting silly – crossing his eyes, making faces and sometimes even giving the activities director the bird.
While he always has been very funny, he spent many years mired in self-pity and wouldn’t even allow himself to enjoy a laugh. It is interesting that in the sunset of his life, in a situation where many people go so far as to say they’d rather be dead, he is embracing the games that his mind is playing on him. Thank God.
He knows he is the class clown of his memory care community. They even dressed him as such at the Halloween party a couple of weeks back. There are some residents who have privately told me they even enjoy some of his fork-tongued quips.
He’ll do anything for a laugh. There’s one lady there who is seldom verbal, but who always has that look on her face that she’s about to bust up. Her eyes roll up into her head and everything. When dad and I really get going, she buckles over in laughter.
“Is she crying?” dad always asks. I say, “No dad, that’s the lady who laughs her butt off at everything she sees here!”
The other two really funny ones are Dolly and Dolores, although Dolly is very mean-spirited like my dad. For example, sometimes residents of memory care facilities will get stuck in a corner. They literally will forget how to turn around. Dolly will applaud a resident who finally figures out how to back up upon finding themselves in such a situation.
And Dolores is possibly my favorite. She often proclaims, “Hey! Come here!” But then can’t remember what she wants to tell you. Monday she announced, “Our bills should be much higher, and you all know it!” My dad laughed, as did several of the other residents.
Dementia affects everyone differently. I’m lucky that my dad is pleasant most of the time and in good humor.
Most days we can’t really have any sort of an actual conversation. But if he tells me a made-up story about another resident, or pokes fun at someone, I’ll agree with him and egg him on.
It’s all about laughing and making moments and memories, and as long as we can do that, I figure we’ve got the will to live. Dad has been on hospice for almost a year, after all.