My dad was the first resident in ten years to escape from the “secure” assisted living complex that we’d moved him to a month or so after his 94th birthday. My sister and I had taken a preliminary tour of the place and then my brother joined us for a more detailed inspection before meeting with the Director. Aside from standard requirements about staffing, livability, etc., we were looking for places where dad could make an escape; because we knew him, we knew that he’d try.
He was a fighter…here’s what he used to say about death, although he’d never use that word: “I’m gonna fight it to the end” he’d snarl. And he did. Underneath this story of the man who broke the ten-year record, is woven the tattered fabric of our collective heartbreak: a glimpse of what life is like for millions of our elders…many of whom can’t or won’t attempt an escape like my father…they’ll just quietly waste away, right before our eyes.
Dad was just plain tough: he was the eldest of the four children still at home, who lost their father to tuberculosis when dad was eleven. They lived in dire poverty in Detroit during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. At age ninety-four, my father was strong and relatively healthy despite the fact that he had dementia, incontinence, was mostly blind from macular degeneration, and fairly deaf, although he didn’t think he was. With all these seeming infirmities, his daily routine right up to the day before we moved him from his home of sixty-one years, included walking one-mile, round trip, to the donut shop once or twice a day, or three times when he’d forget he’d already been there earlier. He was stubborn, cantankerous and basically unstoppable. It had gotten to the point where we could no longer find a way for him to remain in his home and be assured of his safety. That’s before we realized that no one could really give that kind of assurance, even when they said they could.
After our reconnaissance of the assisted-care facility, we met with the Director of the complex and told him we’d found two places that we thought were weak, as far as security went. Already he was eyeing us with a particular kind of look. We described a place in the backyard where the hilly landscaping was so close to the concrete-block fence, we knew dad would drag a metal patio chair to the fence and climb right over it. You should have seen the Director’s face when we told him of the problem. He assured us that no one had escaped in ten years, that they had a “state of the art” alarm system, and that dad would be safe. Next we told him that we’d found a gate that didn’t have a lock on it and dad would jiggle it until he figured out how to open it. Again the director made his assurances. He still wasn’t getting the picture, so we gave him examples of dad’s problem-solving technique, knowing that dad’s new problem to solve would be how to get out of there.
My father had refused to leave a house key hidden somewhere outside his home because he was afraid of an intruder finding the key and getting into his house, and truthfully he wouldn’t have remembered the key when he needed it, anyway. When I asked dad what he’d do if he locked himself out, he said with a bit of a growl, “I’ll just kick the door in”: this from a man in his nineties.
The day finally came when he did lock himself out. The back door was a lightweight, inexpensive hollow-core door and at first he tried to kick it in, but weighing only about 115 pounds fully dressed including his shoes…he just couldn’t bust the door down. That didn’t stop him: he wandered around in his garage and found a crowbar, somehow dragged it to the back door and smashed a hole in it. Then he reached his hand through and unlocked it.
The next time he locked himself out, my sister got a call from the neighbor across the street saying that she had just happened to look out their window to witness dad standing on a 5-foot aluminum ladder just about to climb in through his kitchen window. Luckily her husband was able to interrupt dad’s attempt, which if successful would have landed him right in the kitchen sink.
His third “problem-solving technique” was the proverbial last straw. After the crowbar and ladder incidents we scoured the garage and removed all the tools that we could find, along with anything else that seemed like something dad might hurt himself with. The next time he locked himself out, even after our precautions, somewhere he found a hammer and used it to break the window next to the front door, reached through the broken window and again, let himself in. The same neighbor just happened to see dad reaching his hand through the window and called us. Miraculously, he was not injured.
We knew, as soon as we heard about this last episode, that we had to move him out of his house. We’d been walking a fine line for months by then, trying to find a safe way that he could stay in his home, and with the help of some loving, dedicated caregivers, we had come up with many creative solutions for taking care of this rowdy old man. Even in our frustration and concern for his safety, we all loved that dad simply would not give up.
After hearing our stories, the Director realized that maybe it wasn’t just that we were overly protective children, but it seemed like he still thought we were exaggerating, and maybe nuts. One more time, he repeated his line that no one had escaped in ten years and that they’d take good care of him.
Dad wasted no time and began casing the joint the very next day after his arrival. He took the easiest route – forget climbing the fence. Here’s how he worked it: on the morning after he arrived, the first thing he did was simply try to get out the front door, over and over. Every time he pushed on the door, the alarm would go off. The employees got to know him quickly, knew they needed to keep an eye on him, but they weren’t prepared for quite such a rascal. He spent most of his time that first day, in the lobby, and noticed that sometimes the front door was locked but other times it was unlocked, to allow guests to come and go.
Although he did not completely understand how it all worked, the next day, he made a point to stand around and schmooze with the receptionist, while keeping an eye on that front door traffic. Subtly, he edged toward the door until an opportune moment arrived when there were four or five guests coming and going and dad simply blended himself into that little crowd and walked out with them. Luckily the receptionist realized what had happened right away, and dad only made it about 20 feet from the front door before one of the staff escorted him back inside. So, just two days after we moved him in, my sister got a call saying that he had escaped. Luckily he didn’t get far…he just got out. When my sister phoned with the news, she and I both responded in kind: we cheered. He did it! He broke their blasted ten-year record! But the elation was short lived…we knew he was not safe out on the streets and we knew he would keep trying.
Of course we were pissed off at Mr. Director for not believing us in the first place. We were also secretly quite proud of dad for being, well, for being that fighter that made it so hard for all three of us kids to get along with him, but in this case: “Way to go, dad.”
The next day when we went to visit him, he was right there in the lobby, scoping everything out again, no doubt looking for his next escape opportunity. We walked in, and I could tell that he recognized us, but he didn’t make any effort at a greeting. He was leaning on the reception counter with one elbow, looking intently down one of the long hallways. I went over to him and said, “Dad, aren’t ya gonna say hello to us?” “Shhh!” he whispered loudly, and nodded down the hall, not wanting to draw any attention by pointing with his long, thin finger. “See that guy rolling that cart? Shhh! Don’t let him know we’re looking at him. He cleans up around here. I know him. He’s a pretty good guy. See that garbage can on his cart? He must roll that cart outside to dump it somewhere, don’t ya think? I’m thinkin’ I can just climb into that garbage can and hide in it, and then when he rolls it out, I’ll just jump out and take off! Wha’ d’ya think?”
Even as I was concerned for dad’s safety, I loved that he was still not giving up. It was so much who he was. My brother, sister and I later on that day joked that clearly dad had watched the movie, The Great Escape, too many times. He wasn’t giving in. Not just yet anyway.
What we learned was that Assisted Care facilities are not really set up for patients like dad. Much later I learned that he would be classified as “ambulatory with goal-directed wandering”. I laughed out loud when I first heard that term: “goal-directed wandering”. “Goal-directed”…that was dad, for sure. Most residents were unstable on their feet at best, or, used a walker, were in a wheel chair or bedridden: translation – easy to control. And, truthfully, the great majority of the residents were women, who, in a gross generalization, were from a generation of women not inclined to plan out escapes.
We ended up moving dad, trying two other facilities…each time smaller. Over and over we’d tell them how dad was. Each time they’d give us that look, the one that said we were just over-protective children, and that we shouldn’t worry – they’d take good care of him. But they couldn’t. He was too much of a handful for any of them. He needed constant attention because he was strong and healthy – and he was always on the move, when he wasn’t asleep. They couldn’t keep a close enough eye on him – they weren’t used to having to keep track of a man who actually moved around on his own, and they didn’t have the staff to handle someone so active. We couldn’t afford to hire a private caregiver that would be solely responsible for him and sadly, there was even less of a chance that he was going to consistently take directions from any of his children. I could see the writing on the wall.
As there is an ending to each of our lives, his life ended according to his own particular style. In his uncanny way of sensing when there was a possibility of escape, he got up and wandered to a door during a few moments when someone in the third, and much smaller residence that we’d placed him in, had forgotten to reset the door alarm. He wandered outside, enjoying the freedom and fresh air that he so loved…and fell. He broke his hip and when they x-rayed it, the doctor said that the joint had completely shattered…he would never walk again.
He left his mark on the hospital in those first days. While heavily sedated with pain medication, he was approached by what appeared to him to be strangers who were about to mess with him and he kicked not one, but two nurses in a row, with his good leg: a fighter to the end. Less than two weeks from the day of his fall, when on some level, he knew that it was finally, truly time to go, he went so quickly that the caregiver that was sitting with him didn’t even have time to call for medical help. Even with death, in the same way we’d known him to be in every situation, when dad made his mind up to do something; there was no stopping him.