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Married with kids: Finding dignity in dementia

(Pixabay photo)

As the years roll by, my father’s dementia journey has lost its novelty and has become an accepted part of our lives. It no longer shocks me and my siblings when his sentences are filled with bizarre untruths and we no longer offer gentle corrections. There is no point, since Alzheimer’s has won the battle and all we can do is try to find moments of joy as his gradual decline plays out.

It can be challenging, in the midst of all this, to remember who he was before. Yet we owe him the honour of thinking of him not as a patient riddled with dementia, but as a person who has lived a full and satisfying life. This is the dignity he would want, were he still able to articulate it. And it’s the respect he rightly deserves.

Despite trying circumstances as a child growing up with limited financial means in South Africa, dad made it through Jewish day school. He had educational mentors so steadfast in their support and encouragement that he won a trip to Israel as a young teen, where he fell hard and fast for the Zionist state and all it represented. He spent his time singing in the synagogue choir and developed a deep, lifelong love for Judaism that remains to this day. Though he no longer recognizes my mother, his wife of 33 years, in photographs, he never forgets to ask if the food he’s being served is kosher.

My grandmother, a single mom, was determined that her dashing young son study medicine, considering it the only suitable career. She saved money from the family butchery business until she could pay his university tuition and the pride on her face in his graduation pictures speaks volumes.

Adversity was not be a stranger to my father’s life. At the age of three, he lost his father to a sudden heart attack. In his early 20s, just three months into his marriage to a beautiful young woman who he loved deeply, she, too, died.

From there, though, the story improves. He worked his way through medical residencies, fell in love again and married my mother, fathering three children.

At parenting, he excelled. Gentle, kind and involved, he was a man who changed diapers, soothed fevers, drove us kids to playdates and proudly sang Kiddush at the Friday night table. Committed to Judaism, he was an active synagogue member, paid for Jewish day school and raised his family to love and appreciate the joy that Judaism brings to our lives.

As a teen, I would take regular evening walks with my father, where, in the comfort of a close, loving father-child relationship, we’d discuss everything going on in my life. My siblings and I grew up knowing our dad always had our backs.


Later, as the future of South Africa looked bleak and unsafe, he arranged for the family to immigrate at great personal expense, leaving behind an ailing mother who would call his name for the last three years of her life. Canada presented new challenges: a homesick, deeply unhappy spouse, a job with high demands and long hours and three uprooted kids dealing with their own dramas.

Eventually, life would stabilize and dad worked hard in far-flung Canadian hospitals for 20 years. Then, tragedy struck again with the sudden demise of my mother. Through his grief, he continued to find solace in his medical work, in Judaism, in grandparenting and in the formation of new, unexpected friendships.

Thankfully, this is not a eulogy. Dad is alive (if not well, in the full sense of the word) and happy (though mentally unreliable). I try to remind myself that his dementia-riddled brain is just a very small part of the big picture that is his life. The full story is one of endurance through adversity, success despite trying odds, a career defined by altruism and a fierce love for, and commitment to, his family. In honouring who he was, I try to look out for him as he once did for me: with love, patience and compassion.

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