Sailing Home: A Trip to the Coast Gave My Father Peace from Alzheimer’s

[The following story, slightly modified, appears in the book, Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers, by Architects of Change Marie Marley, PhD and Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN] 

In July 2003, we realized that if we were ever going to take another family trip with my parents, we had better take it then. We wondered how much longer Dad would be able to travel.

Coastal Maine was one of those locales where we had always intended to go but had never visited. So we loaded up our two young daughters, my caregiver mother, and my father with early-stage Alzheimer’s and headed for the untamed, spray-shrouded coastal crags of New England.

We flew to Portland, rented a minivan for the week, and started up the coast, packed to the hilt.

The drive was breathtaking. Dad was an outdoorsman who felt most at home in the woods, and this is one reason we chose Maine. He tended to get a bit anxious and restless, and we thought the waves, winds and lilting of fir trees would be calming to his spirit. We stopped frequently to explore, and as we traveled father north, it seemed every stop had a dropoff of a hundred feet to the crashing surf and rocks below.

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As you would imagine, my mother and wife experienced a quite serious level of angst as our daughters and their Papa trekked out on the rocky cliffs for a view of the wild Atlantic waters. I’m not sure who was keeping whom from slipping—three-year-old Maria, seven-year-old Julie or seventy-five-year-old Papa. As I watched each of my daughters take one of his hands and head toward the water, I remembered those days when I had done the same. When Dad and I had fished and waded and watched and yelled for an echo in reply by seas, lakes, rivers, creeks and bays.

And we had engaged in what may have been one of Papa’s favorite pastimes: skipping rocks. My father had to have been one of the most skillful rock skippers who had ever stood on a shore. He could make one sail in a perfect trajectory, glancing the surface at just the correct angle to skip along with unbridled velocity, often reaching the farther shores of lakes or rivers. He seemed to get tremendous satisfaction from it and never tired of it. This was part of what was innately him.

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Daydreaming about this, I suddenly came to and looked up at a familiar sight. There was Papa, stooping down for a smooth rock to skip, showing the little girls how it was done. Problem was, the water was a little rough to be conducive to rock skipping. Dad didn’t care. He was having fun like he used to, searching for smooth stones with little friends to teach and help.

Truth be told, Dad was restless while we were driving. He was a little agitated when we were in restaurants or other public places. However, once he got out on the rocks with the little girls, he melded with the moment. He became serene, sinking into the deep clefts and crags of himself. And the roughest waters that crashed couldn’t touch him there.

Standing in the wind, playing with his granddaughters and looking over the surf, he drifted out in freedom from the moorings of an unrelenting Alzheimer’s mind invasion. He was sailing free in the ship of himself.

Even though this place was foreign to him and surrounded by danger, and he had just been confused and anxious, he showed his true self through an activity that was so much a part of him. He was enabled, not disabled, standing there by the lighthouse and by those whom he loved.

After we arrived home and Dad returned to Caring Days, in his art activities he began painting scenes from Maine’s coast: lighthouses, trees bending to the wind, sail boats and sea gulls. The images and experiences had stayed with him. I like to think the positive emotions attached to those times stayed with him as well.

[Read more from Daniel C. Potts here]

Why did he enjoy skipping rocks so? Was it the thrill of unending skips or the anticipation of reaching the farther shore? I don’t think so. I think it was the hands he held between the skips; the ones he helped to find the perfect rocks; the misty memories that just may have surfaced of another little child and another old man on another shoreline.

Skipping rocks had brought his boat back to dock in the familiar harbor of home.

[Image credit: Sailing Home, an original watercolor painting by Lester E. Potts, Jr., an artist with Alzheimer’s disease – copyright Daniel C. Potts]

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