First, sleeping tablets failed. Then, desperate to find something to calm my father’s nighttime agitation, his psychogeriatrician prescribed an antipsychotic. That failed too. Next came an antidepressant, Avanza.
Avanza didn’t work. It didn’t help Dad sleep but made him so agitated and confused that several times he said he wished he were dead. All of that on only one small dose. One tablet. Even the next day he sat at the kitchen table with his shirt off, his hair all over the place, completely incoherent.
So many people described how Avanza helped them to sleep that a week later I tried again with a fraction of a pill. The confusion wasn’t as bad but it was definitely worse than usual and there was no improvement in his sleep.
Now we’d tried three different commonly used medications. None of them had worked and the side effects had been terrible. When I rang the doctor to report this he said that Dad would have to be admitted to hospital if we wanted to try anything else. That felt like a last resort to me. We retired to our corners.
In a way I was relieved. I dreaded seeing Dad drugged into submission. But still his nights were difficult. He wandered his apartment, searching for something he couldn’t name, positive that he should be somewhere, doing something important though he couldn’t for the life of him work out what that was.
He opened drawers, took things out – photographs, old letters, cards from him to Mum, from Mum to him, condolence cards on Mum’s death, business cards, receipts. He’d put some of these inside the container on his walking frame, along with a roll or two of toilet paper, a couple of serviettes, wads of tissues. Later he’d take things out of there and leave them all over the apartment. Then he’d go searching for the things he’d hidden from himself.
This kept him busy and he didn’t have anything else to do or anywhere else to be, but it also distressed him, and I hated to see that. I decided to see how he went without medication for the moment, with the understanding that he just wasn’t going to sleep at night.
Meanwhile, my father’s dementia worsened.
I called in to see him one morning. As usual he was so happy to see me. His hazel eyes shone and his face crinkled into a wide, welcoming smile. He kissed me on both cheeks. ‘Oh,’ he exclaimed with delight.
‘Dad,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you get dressed and come into the kitchen and have a cup of tea with me.’
He nodded. He was in the bathroom, bending over the toilet, stark naked, a bar of soap in his hand. ‘I’m doing exactly that,’ he said.
He reached his hands into the toilet and began to wash them.
‘Here, Dad,’ I said. ‘This is the toilet.’ I put the seat down so he might see it more clearly. ‘This is the basin.’ I turned on the tap.
Once he saw the running water he realised that was what he’d been looking for so he shifted his focus, began to wash his hands there.
I kissed him again. ‘Get dressed, Dad,’ I repeated. ‘Come into the kitchen and have a cup of tea with me.’
‘That’s what I’m definitely doing,’ he said. ‘I just need to do this first.’ He held his hands under the tap and began to soap them.
When my mother washed her hands in the toilet I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen. I described it that way in my memoir of her Alzheimer's. That’s not how it felt to me this time. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’ve seen it before. Maybe because I understand the confusion – water, washing. It makes sense to me.
What really bothered me was his lack of self-consciousness about his nakedness in front of me. This is not about my sensibilities; I wasn't the slightest bit embarrassed. I think he has a beautiful body still – well-built and strong despite being nearly a century old – but my father is an old-fashioned gentleman. A couple of times in years gone by I caught him in his drooping y fronts and he ran for cover, embarrassed. Now here he is going about his business completely naked with no awareness at all.
Slowly he got himself dressed, item by item, and somehow with his clothes he became more himself. He’d buttoned his shirt crookedly but otherwise he looked perfect. ‘Does my hair look alright?’ he asked me.
It did, I reassured him. ‘You look wonderful.’ He smiled. He had no idea he’d been naked in front of his adult daughter.
For now my father and I move forward like this: no dementia medication, gradually worsening confusion and, judging by his swollen ankles, worsening heart failure, taking each day as it comes, still loving each other, still kind to each other, still enjoying each other’s company.