Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My Aunt Dottie

My Aunt Darlene (or Dottie) is dying this week. My Uncle Chuck is tending her last days as he has tended her needs for the past 54 or so years. They have been suffering the effects of her Alzheimer's for over 5 years and it's finally time to say goodbye to Darlene.

Dottie is my Dad's sister and they were always close as kids and teens. My aunt and uncle were always around when I was a kid. Their son, Chip, is my age and the two families spent many happy times together. My only chance to travel outside of the US was due to being able to spend time at their home in Jamaica while Chuck was working there for Goodyear International.
This photo of her was taken on a trip to Nashville by Dottie, my Mother, Sharon (another family friend) and myself in 1977. My gosh, look at her hair! There's almost more of it than of her, she was always an itty-bitty thing.

During the 1980's and 90's, Chuck and Darlene traveled extensively and spent years outside the US for his work. They shared time in Jamaica, Peru, Mexico City, Venezuela, the Philippines, Taiwan and India. They collected many memories between the two of them and even shared times when my parents visited with them in those countries, sometimes for months at a time. They saw things most of us only dream of seeing: Incan pyramids; student demonstrations at the fall of regimes and dictatorships; fantastic waterfalls, mountains and beaches; the Amazon headlands; the slums of Mexico City; the poverty of India; and the amazing energy of Hong Kong. All of those years spent collecting a lifetime of memories to be cherished and treasured in their retirement.

As Chuck said to me during one of my visits, the saddest part of Darlene's disease is that although they collected all those memories together, she no longer remembers any of them. He had so wanted to spend their retirement years looking back fondly upon all those times, remembering places they've been together and the wonderful friends they made. Now he sits with tears in his eyes watching his wife with love and sadness as she stares off into nothingness - remembering nothing about their life together.

Chuck, his son, stepson and the rest of the family have watched Darlene grow frail and lost. Chuck has done everything he can to keep her at home and to be near her family - even moved from Florida to Ohio - only to have the kids be moved away leaving him virtually alone to face this with her. He has no doubt spent countless thousands of dollars keeping home healthcare workers to aid him with the only exceptions being the times she spent in nursing facilities because he himself was in the hospital. But as soon as he was able to be home, she was back with him.

And during this time, Chuck also is ill and is now back in the hospital worrying about Darlene and her final days alone. It's heartwrenching to watch and so sad that he worked so hard to keep them together and now at the end they are apart. It's obvious he's done all of this because he loves her so. It's such a sadness that this disease can rob a person not just of their health, but of their entire life. Especially for someone in Chuck's position who has now worn himself into illness caring for his "babe". I wish him to recover soon, but his life will not be the same without her.

Darlene (and Chuck), I thank you for the memories you helped create for me - I hope to recall them for many years to come.

I have many friends that have faced this with their parents and my heart goes out to them all. In the future it will become more prevelant as our population ages. Our health care debate needs to find a way to address this issue, not just of a cure for the disease, but of how to allow our loved ones to receive safety and health care at home, if that is the family's desire, without destroying the entire lifestyle of the family. Chuck has been able to do this with the great insurance he's had with Goodyear, the income he was able to provide from his hard work, and the ability to find quality home health care workers to assist him. Not many of us will have that as we age. Gone are the days of affordable insurance - especially paid for as a part of a pension plan - and incomes are in general not of the range to allow us to save hundreds of thousands of dollars required to pay for home care out of pocket. If we don't find a way to solve this, we'll be creating warehouses filled with Alzheimer's patients just waiting to die.

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