The Bird Whisperer

Posted on: July 18th, 2013 by

Last week, Ari and I were in Florida visiting my parents. It was partly a much-needed vacation. The day after my daughter and I arrived, we all got in my rent-a-car and made a beeline to Miami and saw some sights. We stayed a couple of days, and it felt good to finally have a vacation, albeit too short.

It was good to get away.

But when we returned to my parents’ house, reality set in.

Despite the levity of the first few days in Florida, I actually came there on business – the business of looking after my dad and calming my mom down.

My dad’s been losing weight for some unknown reason, and after a series of negative medical tests, I worked with medical personnel to schedule him for a colonoscopy during my week off from school so I could be there for my parents.

I’m sort of the family’s doctor-patient liaison, so I had come down for the prep rally and to be there for him and my mom on the day of the colonoscopy.

I’m hoping that doctors are able to find the cause of his drastic weight loss. He is frail and seems so elderly and vulnerable.

We have since had the good news that the large polyp the gastroenterologist found was benign.

Along with my family, I have breathed a huge sigh of relief. But I still have lots to worry about.

See, my dad has dementia.


When I was a child, my dad instilled in me a love for animals. He took me to the Bronx Zoo regularly, where I saw him perform his magic. In the children’s section of the zoo, my dad coaxed a talking bird to say my name. On. Each. Visit.

Other parents weren’t so lucky. The bird simply would not cooperate.
But when my father and I approached the beautiful, feathered creature, my dad simply said, “This is Beth.” And I stood, awe-struck, when the bird said “Hello Beth!”

During each zoo visit, my father also showed me ample flamingos, one of his favorite animals ever, at the zoo. We watched with fascination and appreciation, as the long-legged beauties would gracefully make their way across a small pond.


But now I’m watching with apprehension and horror, as my father is deteriorating before my very eyes. While at this time I’m not disclosing the details of his impairment, I can tell you it’s significant and nerve-rattling, and my family members have each noticed it.

We are talking about getting him tested for Alzheimer’s.

How do we break this news to him? Especially since he said he refuses to go to any more doctors.

Our trip to Miami was meaningful, for it may be the last trip that we take together. Of course, I’m hoping we can take more trips in the future and will do my best to make that happen.

I’m afraid a day will come when my dad won’t know my name.

I wish my daughter could see her grandfather as the once-vibrant man he used to be. The conjurer of bird English-speak.

She doesn’t understand his odd behavior.

Although she loves him, she recoils from him at times.

Yet she manages to have a good time with both her grandparents, especially on this recent Miami joy ride.

One of our Miami stops was the Seaquarium, home to a plethora of aquatic creatures. My dad and mom rested under some shade while Ari and I went exploring.

We came upon a type of bird section that rekindled the memory of a bird that once eagerly shouted my name. Only a few feet away flamingoes strutted on their fragile-looking legs.


For a few moments I was speechless.

This was a sign of things to come, I surmised, tearfully hoping it was not an omen.

Do you have any loved ones with dementia?

Are there any helpful resources/advice you would care to share? We may need some.

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19 Responses to The Bird Whisperer

  1. Jamie Inman had this to say about that:

    Yes, my mom died after a slow decline with Alzheimer’s. It is a bitch, for sure. Painful as it is for the family, I know Mom was in torment as she lost her ability to write, to read, then to speak, but was fully aware of the losses.
    If you have specific questions, Beth, I would be happy to help if I can.
    Take care of Beth.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Oh Jamie, I’m so sorry to hear of your mom’s death. Alzheimer’s is such a cruel disease. It’s tragic that not only are loved ones affected, but the person who is suffering from this disease is painfully aware of what is being robbed from her.

      Thank you for your offer to help. I might take you up on that.

      And thank you for the supportive comment. I so appreciate it.

  2. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    Witnessing the physical decline of one’s parent is hard enough, I can’t imagine adding mental deterioration on top of that. I didn’t witness that with my mom’s agonizing illness. I’m so sorry your dad’s health is declining, though I’m really happy about the good news on the polyp and I’m glad you and Ari had a chance to visit and even take a trip with him! That’s great! Perhaps getting your dad tested for Alzheimer’s would be a good thing, as then you could start him with some hopefully helpful treatment/therapy if it turns out he has it. Thanks for the poignant post, Beth.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Nancy, for supporting me during this very difficult time. Watching your mom die from breast cancer is simply hellish and horrific.

      Mental deterioration is another kind of hell. I just never wanted this, but we never want to see our parents suffer.

      Thank you also, my friend, for your support regarding the colonoscopy. I am also soooo glad the polyp was benign. I’m going to try to convince my mom to actually go and get him tested. She’s talked about it, but to actually do it…well that’s another thing.

      I’m hoping there is a treatment that can alleviate his symptoms for awhile.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Renn had this to say about that:

    Beth, I haven’t any experience with dementia or memory loss, but getting him tested is the right thing to do. I just saw Nancy Snyderman talking about this on the news last night ( I have cared for my ailing parents and it is a layer of responsibility that is hard to handle sometimes. I wish you much luck in your quest to determine what is the matter.
    PS So glad you squeezed in some R&R!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for the useful resource; I plan to check it out soon!

      It must have been very difficult to take care of your ailing parents; it’s never easy. You are a great daughter to be so proactive in your parents’ health.

      Thank you for your support, and yes, I’m so glad we had a nice vacation!

  4. Catherine had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth, I’m so sorry to hear this news about your father. Alzheimer’s has been in my family, and I’ve seen my own grandfather fade away under its influence. But along with that (even though I was so young), I can also remember sneaking into bed with him and my grandma when we visited, and how he would tickle me and we’d laugh. It’s just one memory, but it’s a cherished one. I hope Ari holds many in her memory no matter what happens. And I hope he’s able to find help for whatever is going on. My thoughts are going out to you and your family.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your kind comment. I also hope Ari will have wonderful cherished memories with him. Your grandfather seemed special indeed, and I’m sorry he had to suffer with this horrible condition.

      I so appreciate your well wishes.

  5. Anne Marie had this to say about that:

    My heart breaks as I read this post. I am so sorry. I have no wise words, just love and support that I am sending your way. I am here. Listening. And lending a shoulder to lean on.

    Much love,

    Anne Marie

  6. Marie Ennis-O'Connor (@JBBC) had this to say about that:

    Oh Beth, this is so heartbreaking. One of the toughest things is to watch our parents age and grow ill and to worry about them.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Marie, thank you. I know you have experienced tremendous loss, and I’m sorry. It is a difficult thing to watch our parents get old and sick. It’s so strange: my dad was fine mentally, and then things seemed to start going wrong within the last year or so.

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  8. had this to say about that:

    Beth, I’m so sorry to hear this. It’s heartbreaking. Sending many hugs.

  9. Susan Zager had this to say about that:

    Beth, I am sure that it is very difficult to watch you father showing signs of dementia. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s and I know it’s hard to be around. Of course because of all of the weight loss it’s important to make sure everything is tested. I am sure it’s so much harder to watch a father than a grandfather, but I did learn to try to be patient and accept that even though I kept having to repeat things so many times, there were always moments of clarity in between so many moments that weren’t. The best I could do was hold on to that and take care of my grandfather as best as I could. I know it’s scary that you have to wonder if he knows you, but deep down you know he does, he just gets confused. I’m glad you and Ari got the time to spend time with your mom and him.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Susan. Your comment means so much to me. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and it was difficult, but she also had moments of clarity. And she never forgot who I was!

      I think you’re right: deep down inside, I believe my dad will always know me.

  10. The Savvy Sister had this to say about that:

    Beth, my heart breaks for you. My mother-in-law moved in with us 4 years ago with dementia. It is a hard road but there are some very good medications that has slowed progression for her (Aricept/namenda)

    We still laugh and she’s great, and we just take it one day at a time and are happy for the good days.
    Sending strength and peace to you.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Savvy Sister,

      Thank you for your wonderful comment of support. I really appreciate it. It’s given me some hope that there are really good medications that can work.

      I’m glad your mother-in-law is doing well. Taking things one day at a time is a good thing.

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