A band of brothers — still
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Readers, I'm about to break both of my own rules.
This morning I stumbled on a CBS News story, reported by Steve Hartman, whom I've always found to be a little sappy, but in a good way, about a pair of men with dementia who live in the same nursing home. The son of resident Augie Angerame, John, can no longer get his father to speak even a word or answer any questions due to his advanced dementia. Yet, he visits his father at his Long Island VA nursing home frequently. Augie had been a medic in the Korean War.
Mary Rose Monroe, daughter of resident Frank DiBella, is in John's boat. She visits her father, who also does not speak, often. After a while, she noticed that her father and Augie had struck up quite a friendship. From time to time, Augie would wander into her father's room, give him a brief back rub, and then walk back out of the room. Without talking to each other Augie and Frank started visiting each other's rooms so frequently that the nursing home decided to make them roommates.
Then, Mary Rose and John started putting the pieces together, in part, thanks to old Army photographs Augie and Frank had in their rooms. Long story short (click here to read and watch the story), John and Mary Rose discovered that Augie had taken care of Frank, an Army cook, after he was injured in a bomb blast while delivering steaks to frontline soldiers. John remembered his father talking about a man named Frank DiBella while he was growing up.
Mary Rose explained that the two men seem to reach for each other. And that's the part that gets me choked up.
Even though my own grandfather did not suffer from dementia, he was a veteran. And even at the end of his life, the most vivid memories he seemed to have were tied with WWII. Unlike many other men of his generation, he never shied away from talking about it, and he became very emotional when he did, particularly as he got older. It's cliché to say it, but the “band of brothers” metaphor is a real phenomenon. You expect a dying person to talk about his or her children or spouse or other life events. But his most vivid memories at the very end of his life seemed to be those associated with flying in a B-17.
To some extent, I've also seen this with my father, a Vietnam veteran. He struggles when he sees nieces and nephews join the Army or the Marines. War movies and documentaries trigger tears more easily now than when he was younger. Memorial Day and Veteran's Day can be difficult, as can anniversaries of the deaths of his friends. Triggers seem to come out of nowhere — a song, or a trip to a museum.
In interviews I've done with people who work in VA nursing homes, I've found out this reaction is highly common for veterans, especially men. War is a transformative experience and it would be naïve to think it's something veterans can just stash away.
I hope nursing homes recognize this and put some effort into helping these men (and women!) process these events. It can be as simple as making two veterans roommates or ensuring that veterans have access to Memorial Day parades and events.
So as we approach another holiday on Sunday, Grandparents Day, I'll be thinking of people like Augie and Frank, and of course, my own grandparents. I hope you readers do too.