A couple weekends ago my wife and I went to the memorial service for a friends’ parents whom we knew. They were a couple who seemed like the perfect match for each other. As one of their daughters said, she was Abbott to his Costello. The husband saw a positive in every scenario and came up with some crazy ideas while she was the anchor which kept him from floating away. Through the memorial service, it became apparent that even their little bouts of picking on each other were really forms of endearment. The couple’s personalities were so well known that everyone in the room understood who they were and what they had in each other over the course of their long lives. Their wit, intelligence, and personalities were perfectly suited for each other. It was no surprise that when one of them passed, the other followed soon after.
What also became glaringly apparent to my wife and I was that any shot at this kind of storybook ending is long gone for my parents. They had – and actually still have – a long and fruitful marriage. They had the nicknames, inside jokes, daily habits, and familiarity which come with decades of marriage. They even tried for as equitable a relationship as possible for their generation – while there was still the understanding that he wore the pants in the family. As he crossed into his 70’s dementia started to destroy parts of his brain which control memory, restraint, and the ability to reason soundly. The fun vacations they’d take every year would bring home stories of him being more and more unable to deal with foreign surroundings.
The primary thing which ate into their marriage was his desire to continue asserting himself when he needed to be asking for help. When it started to be come apparent to him that he was slipping, he’d get more and more upset if he was told he needed help which the family wanted for him. A huge part of a successful marriage is the ability to rely upon one another and when he couldn’t do that, she couldn’t do her part. I really think that some of this was the disease and some of it was just his forceful personality.
The result was that my mother moved in with my family while we tried to look out for him as long as we could. She wasn’t safe with him alone and couldn’t do much good for him anyway. Eventually, we had to put him in an assisted living home – against his will – because he couldn’t care for himself. When that trusting bond was broken, the fairytale ending was essentially written off. They still care deeply for each other. My father would love to take my mother to Europe for one more big vacation together. She worries about him constantly and is working to do what she can for him and to manage their resources.
During this time, it’s been impossible for my wife and I not to look towards our future and work on our own relationship. We’d obviously love to have the same experience as our friend’s parents. We can’t guarantee it though because life affects us all differently. What we do know is that we need to continue trusting that each of us will look out for the other. The period of time my mother lived with us was a stress on everyone because it was different and we had to adapt. It wasn’t nearly as hard as caring for someone with dementia first-hand, but it wasn’t easy either. The background of what was going on with my father’s condition and knowing that we’d eventually have a major event hit us added to the stress.
What I decided to do was double down on my family. I did a better job of understanding what’s important and what could slide. I made sure that when I walked out of my home office in the evening, it was to help get things done and that these were to be good times rather than chores. I used to spend a lot more hours on long bike trips over the weekend and now I stay closer to home. I take my wife on more date nights around town so that we either have something to look forward to on the weekend or a surprise. We’ve worked our way through a difficult scenario and are stronger because of it. All of this should help us as we get older and need to lean on each other even more.