One day it happened. Dad’s advancing dementia had made his condition too difficult for our family to manage, and we made the difficult decision to entrust his care to a continuing care home in Edmonton.

Despite new routines, unfamiliar care staff and his expected adjustment difficulties, we eventually settled into a routine. In those early days, Dad and I chatted about all things science, history, geopolitics, aviation and space travel. One day he told me he’d woken up from a dream in which he had been researching animals with prehensile tails, and upon awakening he had some follow-up questions for me.

Having absolutely no idea what he was talking about (and thinking it was likely dementia-induced gibberish), he kindly encouraged me to go home and consult the ‘knowledge wall.’ This was an enormous wall unit in the home of my childhood, complete with full-volume sets of Encyclopedia Britannica in both recent and older editions. (We had a rule in my house growing up: it was forbidden to ask a ‘Why is the sky blue?’ question until after consulting the knowledge wall). Surely, he believed the wall unit and books were still accessible 40 years later.

Well sure enough, after a brief ‘Google Wall’ search, I concluded that prehensile tails do exist (they’re the coiling/wrapping tails that can hold an animal’s weight and be used to hold objects — many species of monkeys have them) and I dutifully brought my homework to my next visit with Dad.

Looking back, it now made perfect sense that there was such a lengthy delay in getting Dad diagnosed. I recall him being asked to identify the name of a drawing (it was a camel) on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) test. His response was that it was clearly a dromedary rather than bactrian camel, as evidenced by the single hump. I was both amused and saddened that it took two more years before he declined enough to register on the dementia assessment.

The care home staff called him s ‘Bill the Science Guy.’ They got a kick out of his out-of-this-earth banter about the solar planets and his certainty that he would be the first Canadian candidate for a mission to Mars.

One day we brought our new drone to show Dad, only to be disappointed by a sudden rain shower that prevented us from heading into the facility’s sprawling courtyard. I’m not sure if the staff saw us implement Plan B as we snuck into the empty 3rd floor auditorium to give the drone a test run (all while discreetly sharing a Pilsner). Even if they knew, they never breathed a word — likely turning a discreet blind eye in favour of us using an elicit drone demo to bring a huge smile to a science guy’s face.

The But Beautiful ritual would invariably lead Dad to regale staff with the story I’d told him months ago (and apparently it was unforgettable, even for someone with progressive dementia): that Lady Gaga had been accepted into Juilliard Music School — and had the audacity to walk away! We would always exclaim, “You’re kidding?!” and indulge him in hearing the story one more time.

I discovered some incredible things about not-for-profit care homes as places where people go to live and thrive — thanks in large part to the caring staff who bring an unwavering calling to this mission-driven work. That’s when I understood the true compassion behind their work. The deeply held values. The call to serve the most vulnerable.

Shortly after Dad passed away, I learned that Lady Gaga had recorded that entire album while accommodating Tony Bennett’s advancing dementia.

Dad would have been delighted. And then we would have talked about Juilliard.

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