Book cover of "Memory's Last Breath" by Gerda Saunders

Frances H. Kakugawa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

Omoiyari . . . Think of others first and good karma will return to you. — Frances H. Kakugawa

Dear Readers: The following is an email exchange between Linda and myself. You might find her situation similar to something you have experienced or are currently experiencing.

Dear Frances,

Today my stepbrother called from Florida saying my dad has had another stroke and has not been eating much, just sleeping most of the time. The hospice doctor thinks he is in his final decline and probably won’t last more than a month. I want to be with him, but honestly don’t feel capable of making the trip right now because of these health issues. I feel really torn.


Dear Linda,

I’m so sorry to hear about your Dad.

Linda, see if you can flow with life’s mysterious currents. If you are not able to be with your dad because of your own health, can you maybe think of this as being orchestrated by a force beyond your control for a reason?

We live our lives making these kinds of plans for ourselves — we think we need to be near our parents when they die. Perhaps we need to tell ourselves a different story. Why must you be there? Your dad knows you love him, and you know he loves you. We create a lot of idealistic myths that cause us grief because, often, they do not deliver. We create these myths, not a higher power. Whatever we need to say to our loved ones is known to both of us.

It’s wonderful that you are in contact with your dad. Do you share your childhood memories of him with him?

There is nothing else for both of you to prove to each other. Light a candle for your dad, as I will for you. Write him a letter and have someone read it to him. Will your stepbrother do this for you?


Dear Frances,

Your words about my dad are very comforting and wise, Frances. I do write to him every week and his hospice nurse or volunteer reads it to him, and I will continue doing so. Yes, he knows I love him, so I needn’t see him again to tell him that — you’re right. I know I have a story in my head that says a good daughter must be with her dad when he dies and that other stories are valid. But I mostly just don’t want him to be alone. Jeff (my stepbrother) is there with him, so that is good. Maybe I’m just not ready to say that I’ve seen my dad for the last time, but it has to be faced and accepted at some point, so I will try.


Dear Frances,

My husband is now in a care home and no longer knows me. He will allow me to snuggle with him and I feel so comforted by this time of intimacy, but after a few minutes, he will sit up and push me away and say, “I have a wife.” So my moments with him are very short. This saddens me so much.


Sacramento, Calif.

Dear Marge,

It is ironic that his loyalty and love for you are now causing you grief. Have you tried any of these?

1) Tell him, “Your wife said that it’s OK for us to be together.”

2) Before you see him, have someone tell him, “Your wife is here to see you.”

Marge, if his memory span is short, consider leaving and re-entering the room as often as possible and get more intimate moments with him. Please let me know how these suggestions work.


Readers: How is your reading list? Are you looking for more literary treasures? I recently read and reviewed three books of relevance to this column. I hope you will check them out.

“Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on my Dementia” by Gerda Saunders

At the age of 60, Gerda Saunders was diagnosed with microvascular disease, the second leading cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s. Her observations of her memory loss and her research into the brain are fascinating. She writes about leaving pots on the lighted stove, washing her hair twice in an hour and other dementia-related behavior. At Nordstrom’s one day, she had intended on trying on a sweater in front of the mirror. Instead, she undressed herself totally from the waist down. Her research into the neurological sciences is doubly fascinating.

I found her stories of her childhood distracting, however. I also question how it is that her use of language never deteriorated even while her memory diminished. Was it due to an editor?

I’m sidetracking here, but I consider a poetry book a “good average” if I find two or three poems to my liking, or if I can relate to one or two short stories in an anthology. This book left me with one significant finding; I know you will find others, as in the story of one of my favorite authors, Iris Murdoch. Her last novel received poor reviews because no one knew she had Alzheimer’s at the time. This story of Murdoch’s biographical sketches led me to read her husband John Bayley’s book, “Elegy for Iris.”

But back to my starred section in Saunders’ book.

I found Page 109 significant. At one medical evaluation, it was noted: “While walking, she (Saunders) inadvertently wrapped her legs around each other and almost tripped herself.”

Why do we fall? It may due to mixed messages we are sending to our brain. I’m walking to the kitchen to get a drink of water and along the way I am distracted by something in the living room. All of a sudden, my legs are going into two different directions. It’s no wonder I almost fell. Nowadays, I tell myself, “Go to the kitchen. Go to the kitchen. One errand at a time.” Let’s see if this works.

Back to our brain . . . I often go to a bakery to do my writing. There is an elderly woman in her late 80s, I would guess, who works on the daily New York Times crossword puzzles. I asked her if she cheats. She responded: Our brain has that space that is filled with everything we have learned. They’re all jumbled, so if you stay with the NYT crossword puzzle long enough, the words will come.

Before she left, she gave me her finished crossword puzzle. I checked it the next day and, by golly, she had gotten it all right. I decided to take her advice and now work on the puzzle throughout the day and, guess what? It works. The words do come. There’s so much to learn from our elders.

Here are two easy to read and enjoyable books:

“We are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas

This is a quietly told story about the relationship between a woman, her husband and her son.

I won’t tell you anymore because I don’t want to spoil this for you. The story unfolds page after page and gives good insights into how our children and, parents, too, grow into adults.

“The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules” by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg.

Years ago, I told a friend that when I am old and penniless, I plan to rob a bank in North or South Carolina because their jails cater to the elderly. Well, this author beat me to it with this novel. A group of elders escapes from a horribly run nursing facility and become thieves because they feel prison offers better care and facilities than their nursing home. In the end, they donate part of their wealth to improve life for other elders. Here’s two excerpts from the end of the book:

  • “All retirement homes shall be renovated and equipped to at least the same standards as the country’s prisons.”
  • “Nobody is allowed to become a politician in a position of power before they have done an internship at a retirement home for at least six months.”

Take a read . . .

Frances Kakugawa was her mother’s primary caregiver during her five-year journey with Alzheimer’s disease. A native of Kapoho on Hawai‘i island, she now lives in Sacramento. Frances has melded her professional training as a writer and educator and her personal caregiving experiences to write several books on caring for people with memory-related illnesses. She is a sought-after speaker, both in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland, sharing strategies for caregiving, as well as coping with the stresses of caregiving.

Book cover of "The Little Old Lady Who Broke all the Rules" by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

Book cover of "We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas


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