Honoring My Dad, My Hero: The Longest Day

By Heather Shadko

My name is Heather Shadko. I grew up in the Midwest, just outside of Chicago, but I’ve been a resident of Puyallup, Wash., for 24 years. I’m a mother, wife and active member of my community. I work as a contract specialist for King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks, combining my passion for the environment and our community with my career. This year for The Longest Day, I am hosting a Summer Solstice 5k event in honor of my dad, Stan, who passed away from Alzheimer’s.

Three young girls smile with their father
Dad, my sisters and me in 1971.

My Dad, My Hero
My dad was my hero. He and my mom raised four kids: three girls and a boy. One of my favorite things about my dad was that he always treated my sisters and me the same as my brother. Before we were allowed to get our driver’s licenses, we all had to meet his “standards” for car maintenance skills. This included learning how to change a car’s tires, spark plugs and oil.

My dad grew up on a farm in Arlington, South Dakota and was the oldest of three siblings. He started his education in a one-room schoolhouse, but read every book he could get his hands on. College was interrupted when the military sent him to Chicago, where he met my mom.

When his Alzheimer’s got more advanced, he repeatedly told the story of how he met my mother and their early life together. Hearing this continuously back then could be frustrating, but now I’d give anything for one more telling of that story because, as his disease progressed, he became quiet. 

My dad loved history, camping and fishing. He always made our family vacations educational. As a result, I’ve been to quite a few presidential birthplaces and museums. He taught me how to fish and clean the catch as well. Two of his favorite things were strawberry ice cream and fishing in his boat on Lake Michigan.

Dad showing off some perch he caught while fishing

Dad’s Alzheimer’s Journey
About six years ago, we knew that there was something more going on than just forgetfulness when Dad started repeating himself and struggling to find the right words. His mother had Alzheimer’s, and he always worried he might eventually get it. Dad did everything right to keep his brain and body strong: he exercised regularly, consumed a healthy diet and was an avid reader. It ultimately didn’t matter. 

Our suspicions were confirmed during the summer of 2016, when my brilliant father didn’t know what a whale was. We had taken him on a whale watching tour, and later, he wanted to tell my husband what he had seen, but all he could come up with was, “It might have been a sea monster.” At first, we thought he was joking, he liked to do that, but then we realized he didn’t know what he had seen.

In 2017, Dad received his formal Alzheimer’s diagnosis. By this time, he had declined to the point he did not fully understand what was happening. There were many lifestyle changes and he had to give up many things, like driving, serving as a church usher and volunteering on election days. 

There were appointments and medicines once dad was diagnosed, but nothing could change the inevitable outcome. This was a very stressful time for his wife, Judy. She was trying to understand all the new medical information and directives, while also coping with the changes happening to her husband. My siblings and I all moved away from our hometown many years before, so we could not be there to assist with day-to-day care. Since we didn’t see him as often, the changes to his personality appeared more evident to us.

Judy cared for my dad at home for as long as she could, baking him cookies, taking him on walks and working with him in their garden. She was an excellent caregiver and was able to continue doing so until he started falling frequently and wandering away from home. 

In August 2019, we decided to move dad into a memory care facility. Having to place dad in a care facility and leave him there was the hardest thing I have ever done. Even though he had lost many of his memories, he knew it wasn’t home and always asked when he could go home. While my sister and I were only able to visit every three months, Judy visited every day until the pandemic began. 

We lost dad on Nov. 2, 2021. He passed with loved ones holding his hands, listening to bagpipes.

A woman and her senior father smiling at the camera
Dad and me in 2019

My Advice for Family Caregivers

Research memory care facilities early. 
Everyone hopes for a happy ending with Alzheimer’s, but there isn’t one until we find a cure. I recommend looking at memory care facilities soon after your loved one’s diagnosis, so you aren’t trying to find a place in a hurry like we were. Denial is an understandable reaction, especially for the people closest to the person, but this disease sometimes progresses faster than expected. 

My dad’s wife had been adamant that she was keeping him at home, and she didn’t have time to look at the options. We scrambled to locate a facility when he was released from the hospital and wasn’t in the same cognitive state as when he was admitted. Our first-choice memory care unit was full and had a nine-month waiting list, and our second choice was too far away for Judy to visit daily, so we ended up at our third choice, which is not the best thing when you select care options for a loved one. I strongly urge you to visit, don’t just walk through. Stay awhile and observe staff interactions. Look at the residents and ask yourself, “Do they look well cared for? Is anyone helping them eat?”

Before the COVID pandemic, my stepmom provided quite a bit of my dad’s care even while he was in the memory care facility: cleaning and ensuring he was wearing his glasses and hearing aids, helping him eat meals and reading to him. Some fantastic people are working in these facilities, but many of these places are currently understaffed and details can be missed.

Research and learn about the care facility’s ambulance and ER services protocol.
Did you know you can request which ambulance service a facility calls if your loved one has an emergency? We found out the hard way. One provider was double the cost of the transport company, but the facility regularly called them over the other. My stepmother then had to fight with Medicare for almost a year after they denied the bill. Facilities send residents to the ER a lot for falls, so make sure you state your preferred hospital and ambulance service before they need to make the call.

Question everything and advocate for your loved one.
My dad had been severely hard of hearing since I was a kid and had learned to read lips. When COVID started, and everyone was masked, his communication became very limited as he no longer had a way to understand those around him. Can you imagine how isolating that was? The care staff didn’t reliably change the batteries in his hearing aids, we weren’t allowed to visit in person, and he couldn’t hear on the phone. Once in-person visitation started again, all we could do was be there with him since he no longer recognized us.

Involve hospice sooner.
If I had one do-over, it would be to involve hospice sooner. Ask for a hospice evaluation if it feels right. I had requested hospice two weeks before my dad’s passing and was told it was too soon. It wasn’t. My dad’s level of care once hospice came on board was amazing; unfortunately, one must be in that state to receive it. I never met most of the hospice workers, but they were unbelievably kind and arranged to get my dad everything he needed to be comfortable. There is a common misconception that hospice means dying right away. When I first spoke with hospice, one of the first things they told me was that his passing might not be immediate, but it was coming.

Summer Solstice 5k for The Longest Day
I’m blessed to have help from two friends, Kim Fields and Amy Wertz, who run All Things Fun Sports (ATFS), a nonprofit 5K fun run/walk group. I have served on their board from the beginning, even though I am not a runner. We have been friends for many years, and they knew about my dad’s journey with Alzheimer’s and how significant finding a cure is to my heart.

When I asked Kim and Amy if they’d be interested in partnering with the Alzheimer’s Association for The Longest Day they immediately said yes! I had no idea when I requested this that it would turn into the event it is shaping up to be. We have invited Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland and Puyallup City Council Member and former Mayor Julie Door, a long-time ATFS supporter, and hope they will be in attendance. 

We’ve even been fortunate enough to secure a restaurant partner for the event! BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse of Puyallup will be the site of the post-race event. BJ’s is a proud supporter of the Alzheimer’s Association and has a special promotion happening in June in honor of The Longest Day.

On Saturday, June 18, we will be hosting the Summer Solstice The Longest Day 5k event in Puyallup on the beautiful Puyallup Loop Trail. Join me for the race or help raise funds and raise awareness by signing up for your own The Longest Day event. We are all in the fight against Alzheimer’s together.

The Longest Day is the day with the most light — the summer solstice. On June 21, people from across the world will fight the darkness of Alzheimer’s through a fundraising activity of their choice. Whether you’re participating at home, online or in-person, we have plenty of fun ideas to engage family and friends in The Longest Day. Learn more here.

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