A Father's Senility Becomes a Losing Battle for a U.s. Senator and His Family
For many people, life's later years are a time for long-neglected interests and happy recollection, but to an unfortunate minority, they bring something quite different Senile dementia, a complex of brain disorders whose causes are often unknown, is found in as many as 15 percent of those who live past the age of 65, frequently robbing them of memory, intellect and independence. Like most diseases, senility strikes without discrimination. It affects former movie stars such as Rita Hayworth, 63, now the helpless victim of a neurological form of the ailment known as Alzheimer's disease, as readily as Antone Pressler, a rugged farmer from the prairies of South Dakota. Pressler, 66, is the father of Larry Pressler, 40, a former Rhodes scholar, Harvard Law School graduate and, since 1976, Republican Senator from South Dakota. For the past seven years the son has witnessed his father's steady mental decline and observed the difficulties his worsening senility has posed for those around him. In a conversation with PEOPLE correspondent Clare Crawford-Mason, Larry Pressler told how his family gradually came to grips with an illness that now afflicts an estimated l.5 million Americans.
My father was a struggling farmer most of his life. He grew up in rural South Dakota, married a local girl and raised five children on a 140-acre farm. He took pride in being an outdoor, working man who was in great shape. He never complained about any sickness, he didn't have annual physicals, and I don't think he was ever in a hospital in his life. He didn't drink, except for a beer once in a while, and he never even took aspirin.
He and my mother lived their whole lives within a 12-mile radius of their farm outside Humboldt. On Sundays they'd visit relatives or maybe go to a local ball game, and that would be their recreation. During the week he would get up about 6:30 a.m. and spend an hour and a half feeding the cattle and the hogs, then take the tractor and haul hay or plow or cultivate his corn. He was 59 years old, and you'd never have guessed seven years ago that his mind was slipping a little bit.
Some of it was just taken as forgetfulness. Nobody paid much attention when Dad would take a load of feed to town to have it ground and, instead, sell it. Or he would mow a field of hay and then go out and re-mow it. He worked alone, and that's probably one reason why people didn't notice anything. His style was always very low-key, and he just did his own thing in his own way. He was the sort of person who, when you asked him a question, would pause for about 30 seconds before he would answer. We didn't notice when the pauses got longer and longer.
Eventually some of the things he did he couldn't explain. He'd forget to water the hogs, or leave a gate open so the livestock would get out. My mother was the type who wouldn't go out of the house very much, but increasingly she had to check on the cattle and the hogs to make sure they weren't running around. A couple of times after he'd forgotten to water the pigs, a few died.
Then over two or three years Dad's behavior got progressively worse. He had periods of lucidity when he could talk about politics or do the farm work very well, and then there were periods when it was just patchy. I was in the House of Representatives then, and I'd talk to my mother by phone from Washington. She kept saying, "He forgets so much," but I thought he just seemed to be aging a little bit. I suggested that she buy some feeder calves that didn't require so much attention, but my mother said, "No, he just can't take care of them." That's when I realized it was serious.
Dad was taken to doctors in Sioux Falls, and they thought it might be some kind of cerebral atrophy. It was diagnosed in one instance as Alzheimer's disease, but doctors really can't be certain without examining some of the brain tissue in an autopsy. During one examination, a doctor asked my father who the President of the United States was, and he couldn't respond. Although he didn't follow politics real closely, he certainly would have known that. I figured that there must be some kind of drug he could take or some exercises, but they didn't prescribe anything.
I couldn't accept that, so I arranged for a trip to the Mayo Clinic. Dad didn't actively resist and was quite docile, as though he really didn't fully comprehend what was happening. At the Mayo they were never able to define his problem either; they said it could have been a series of strokes, a premature hardening of the arteries in the back of the head, Alzheimer's disease or just aging. There was no record of anything like this in his family; both his father and grandfather had been alert until their 70s. The doctors had neither an explanation nor a cure; they said it's just a process some people go through.
That must have been five years ago. Mother was absolutely determined to keep him at home, so they stayed on the farm for several years more. Once he took a walk in the cornfield, and some of the neighbors had to come and help look for him. Corn will get about eight feet high, and he would lie down in it and take a nap. We had a fence around the garden, though, and when we put a piece of twine over the latch, he couldn't figure out how to open it.
Dad lost his power of speech at some point, and he began mixing his days and nights. There was a visiting nurse who came about once a week to help Mother a little bit and give her advice. That was great because Mother was on the farm all alone with Dad, and she couldn't go to town for shopping and leave him. Eventually he became bedridden and incontinent, and she had to feed him by hand. He could sit and look at TV, but whether he comprehended it or not it was difficult to say.
Finally we all thought it was getting to be too much for her. She's the kind of person who just sticks with it, and it was only when she had to have a hysterectomy and go to the hospital for a week that the thing came to a head. She just decided that during the recovery period she wouldn't be able to take care of him and agreed reluctantly that he should go to a nursing home in Canistota, which is seven or eight miles away. None of the family was opposed at that point.
Still, having him in a nursing home has been almost like losing part of my father without really losing him. He doesn't recognize people now, as far as we can tell, and it's always a strange thing to sit down and try to talk to him. He might be aware of a presence, but I don't think he knows I'm there. Mother visits him probably every other day or every third day and has adjusted amazingly well to this difficult situation. She feels badly about it, but she feels the nursing home is doing such a great job and goes over and sits with the ladies who work there. At 64, she's a very hardy individual.
My dad had been getting disability payments from Social Security because he became ill before he was 65. Now his Social Security check goes to the home, plus some additional money from my mother. It's been a great burden for her, but she's taking care of herself. The children contribute some to her support, and fortunately she's been able to rent some of the farmland and collect money from that. There hasn't been a lot of complaining, and maybe that's a trait of Midwestern farmers. They just sort of accept things and do the best they can.
In fact, I don't know how this thing could have been prevented, even if it had been diagnosed earlier. If it's Alzheimer's disease, as doctors now believe, there's no cure for it, and there probably wouldn't have been any difference in the sequence of events. It certainly points up the limits of our power as well as the fragility, the unpredictability of human existence.
It seems very unfair to me, though, to see Dad in this condition. He would have been horrified because he never wanted to be dependent on anybody, and now he's spent the last few years totally dependent on other people. I've often imagined what he'd be like at this point if he were still healthy. He probably would have just kept on farming as his own father did, rather than taking Social Security. He enjoyed moving around and working the farm, and I'm sure he would still be going full speed if he only could.
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