Growing up, my sister and I spent afternoons and weekends with our boat-captain father while our mother worked long hours as a lawyer. We did our homework on sailboat decks, played hide-and-seek in marine-supply warehouses, and quietly practiced our knots as my father did business with ship chandlers, sailmakers, yacht brokers, and deckhands. Our summers were spent sailing along the mid-Atlantic coast, polishing fittings for a quarter a piece, and taking turns keeping watch with my father on night sails. He was the boat’s skipper, our capable captain, and we were his favorite crewmates.
Now, twenty years after my father first taught me how to tie a bowline (behind my back!), both of our lives look vastly different — especially his. About two years ago, we received a phone call from his neighbor: my father had gotten lost in the neighborhood he’d lived in for 27 years. My sister and I had moved away from our hometown of Miami, but we’d already noticed the signs that something was wrong with our father, like when he claimed someone had broken into his house but it was his key jammed in the lock, or when he’d lose the dog but then realize she’d been in the yard all along.
A year later, on a visit home for a friend’s birthday, I realized that my father was no longer capable of living alone. His dog hadn’t been fed in a while, his sink was full of maggots, and his medications were an incoherent mess. I scheduled an emergency visit to his neurologist, who requested a brain scan. My father’s brain was suffering serious hemorrhaging. The diagnosis: vascular dementia.
My father was not yet 65. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I moved him and his dog across the state and into the duplex I shared with a fellow grad student; I was only a few weeks away from graduation. I spent those weeks making sure my father didn’t get lost in my neighborhood and praying that his dog wouldn’t bite my roommate.
That summer, my sister and I shuffled my father and his dog between Florida and her home in Atlanta. He’d always made us promise back when he was still whole and healthy that we’d never put him into assisted living — we tried to avoid it at all costs, but soon it became clear that it was our only option. At the end of the summer, I would be leaving for a yearlong Fulbright fellowship in Colombia and my sister would return to her job as a schoolteacher. We found a foster family for the dog and an assisted-living facility for my dad. Our mother did her best to help us out with our father, but their marriage had ended a decade and a half earlier.
Struggling to remain master of his own domain, our father fought mightily against the new status quo. He threw his computer against the wall when he couldn’t figure out how to use it and put all matter of flotsam into his microwave. Two months and three fire-department visits later, the facility informed us that my father could no longer stay.
After that, he lived at home with a caretaker until he developed a bad UTI and spent several weeks in the hospital. By the time he was released, his dementia had worsened significantly. The only lockdown facility that would take him with a catheter cost thousands of dollars more than our monthly budget. We gave it a shot, thinking that the high cost meant quality care; we were wrong. Although it was the most luxurious memory-care center in Miami, the caretakers rarely knew where my father was when I visited. Often, I’d find him wandering the vast hallways, his pants soiled and a bewildered expression on his face. With only a dozen caretakers overseeing 160 dementia patients, it was difficult to find anyone who knew what was going on. The next facility promised us that they could handle his difficult behavior, but they called the cops within a week when he got combative with the staff. He ended up in the psych ward, more disoriented than ever.