June 1, 2014

My Dad Can Still Dance. ~ Bob Sh’mal Ellenberg

just dance couple meadow


One summer evening I decided to take my Dad to a dance with live music sponsored by the Arts and Medicine program in the hospital where I worked.

“Dad,” I said, “we’re going to hear some music tonight. Maybe there’ll be some dancing.”

“Music,” he responded, “who wants to hear music?”

My Dad, who had Alzheimer’s disease, lived with my three adolescent children and myself.

“You like to listen to music, Dad. We heard some last week at the Plaza.” I knew he didn’t remember the incident, but he always liked to watch and listen to live music.

“I like music?”

“Yeah, you do,” I said with a hopeful smile. “There will be dancing, too.”

“Who’s going to dance?”

“Maybe you will. You used to like to dance with Mom.”

“Oh yeah, dancing with Mom. Whose mom? Where’d she go?”

“My Mom, your wife, Mae. You danced with her at the condo, when they had entertainment at night.”

“I did?”

“Yeah, you did.” I didn’t want to get into a whole discussion, but I was trying to create some interest and to stimulate his memory, even though I knew it was usually futile.

“Come on, we’ll have a good time. I’ll help you get your shoes on.”

“What do I need help with my shoes for? I can get my shoes on.” Sometimes he managed them well, and sometimes he had socks over shoes, shoes over slippers, or any mix and match that came together for him.

I sat across from his bed as he took off his slippers. He held each shoe in his hands looking at them before he decided which foot it went on. Then he put his slippers over the toes of his shoes. He looked at them a few seconds, looked at me, and we laughed together.

“That doesn’t look right,” he said. He took off the slippers and started to take off the shoes.

“No Dad, leave your shoes on, we’re going to hear some music and maybe dance.” He left them on, tied the shoes, and said, “Okay Pop, where are we going?”

When my father started living with us, he began to call me “Pop.”

It bothered me some since I was taking care of him and would have liked for him to know who I was. Another side of me though knew this was for him.

Again, I kindly reminded him, “Dad, you’re the pop, I’m the son.” It really didn’t matter, but still I had to say it. It’s impossible to know the workings of a mind lost in dementia. Since we were living with my three children and I was the man with the gray beard, I must be “Pop.”

“We’re going to hear some music, Dad.”

“Well, I’m waiting for you, Pop,” he said. “What’s taking you so long?”

My Dad lived with us for two years.

During that period, I was worked full time in a hospital as a medical social worker. Compared to some, my dad’s dementia was relatively easy to work with, and it had not destroyed his general good nature. He did have bouts of confusion, and he would sometimes get angry and yell my children, not recognizing who they were.

On two occasions he walked out of the house alone.

Once wearing only his underpants and carrying a tennis racket in one hand and his truss in the other. He got lost, but we eventually found him in a nearby wooded area, leaning against a tree.

Sometimes at night he would talk to himself in his bedroom.

On these occasions, I would check on him two or three times, making sure he was okay. I would get up and change his sheets and bedclothes.

Some nights he would climb over the bedrail of the hospital bed, and I’d find him on the floor. Then I would help him into a chair, change his wet sheets and pajamas, help him back into bed and hope I didn’t have to get up again.

I was fortunate that my children were able to give some help, taking him for walks or staying with him at home if I was out for a bit. There was also a part-time caregiver for when I was at work, but really it was all on me—a full time job, three children and my father.

I loved my dad very much, especially because he had an exceptionally gentle spirit. Yet, some days while driving to work after a difficult night, I’d ask myself, How much am I supposed to handle?

I didn’t like to admit it, but I had my limits.

Guilty, I wondered, “When will this end?”

We arrived at the gym where the dance was being held and sat on chairs positioned strategically near the dance floor. When a few friends of mine came over to say hello, Dad responded with a great big, friendly smile.

As soon as the music started, Dad began to tap his feet and sway his body. It made me feel good to see him, at 80 years old, so taken with the music.

Soon after the band began playing, LuAnn, a young nurse I knew from the hospital where I worked, came over to talk to us. I appreciated her being especially friendly and warm toward my father.

Then she asked me if my dad could dance.

“Sure, he would like that.” I moved away from him a bit and whispered to her, “He falls sometimes and has dementia, but he loves to dance.”

Actually, my dad fell a lot. I’d estimate he has probably fallen a hundred times while he lived with us. Miraculously, and maybe because he has strong bones, he never injured himself. We considered getting him a walker, but because his balance was off and because of his dementia, I knew he wouldn’t have been able manage one.

When LuAnn held out her hand and asked him to dance, Dad’s hand reflexively went out and took hers. Together they walked, holding hands, out onto the dance floor.

There was a small turnout of around 20 people, and because no one had ventured out onto the dance floor yet, it belonged to them.

She started off carefully, gauging his ability.

She began to move a bit more as he caught the rhythm. His face took on a broad, glowing smile. His body moved a bit stiffly, but I could see recognition in his steps—an obvious remembrance of dances past.

I was surprised at how well he followed her steps.

They danced two numbers, then she walked him back to his chair. Dad’s glowing smile still radiated from his face.

After a brief rest, LuAnn came back for him and again led him onto the dance floor. This time the music was a bit faster, so she held him close to give him more support.

LuAnn kept my dad dancing for almost half an hour. He loved every minute of it, but eventually I noticed  that he began to grow tired from his most enjoyable workout.

It was the first time we had done anything like this.

Usually I took Dad out for walks, to restaurants, to visit friends or to the downtown plaza to see live music. But the night turned out to be a definite hit all around. Dad and I both hugged LuAnn and thanked her for the dances.

When we came home, I helped Dad put on his pajamas and left him sitting on his bed for a few minutes. When I came back, he was lying in bed with three hats on.

“Dad, why do you have three hats on?”

“I have three hats?”

“Yeah, you do.”

He took one off, looked at it and put it back on his head. “There that’s better.”

I was used to him sometimes going to bed with more than one hat on and had realized early on, in the midst of everything, that wearing three hats really didn’t matter.

Out of curiosity, I asked him, “Dad, did you like dancing with that pretty young woman?”

He looked at me with a questioning expression. “What dance? What woman?”

That was it—another good time with my father.

Like any good Buddha, he enjoyed the present moment and went on to the next—wearing three hats and no worries.

Not long after my dad’s big dance, there was a call from Alz Place, the Alzheimer’s day program he attended. They told me he that he had crumbled to the floor. That his hip had just broken apart. Dad was taken to the hospital, where it was repaired with a plate and bolts.

It took some soul searching, but I finally found the answer to my question, “How much can I do?”  I knew my dad wasn’t going to be able to walk with his damaged hip, which meant I wouldn’t be able to manage him at home.

To move him in and out of bed, dress him, change his wet diapers—all that it took—would be beyond my capabilities.

As much as I didn’t want to, I had my dad admitted to a nursing home near where I worked, where he lived contentedly for two more years.

And when I went to see him there he would proudly say with a smile, finally, “Oh, there’s my son.”

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Apprentice Editor: Amanda Fleming Taylor / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Norman Smajic/Pixoto

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