Sue Miller is a gifted author whose
fiction books I have always enjoyed immensely. The Story of My Father is
her first foray into nonfiction, to my knowledge, and it reads as well as her
fiction. The book is about her father's Alzheimer's disease, and how she and
her family had to watch him die from it. Although her siblings took turns
caring for their father, Miller herself was the primary caregiver (along with
her husband and children), until the disease progressed to the point where he
was unable to travel. Miller helped him renovate an old house that was close to
her own that he had always loved. This gave them time to share that she now
cherishes. The house turned out to be a real disaster and required more work
than anyone else would have done, but Miller was happy to do so. However, he
really didn't live in the house very long before his condition deteriorated.
Sue and her family decided it was time to institutionalize him; they were able
to visit him nearly every day until the end.
Miller discusses the behaviors of
her father long before the diagnosis set in and tries to see if his earlier
quiet and patient demeanor was a function of very early disease setting in. She
had always seen him as kind and nonjudgmental, but looking back wonders if the
etiology of even those traits were the beginning of the disease. She cites a
study of nuns in their 20's who were given a cognitive test, and when tested
much later, those who had done better on the earlier test were less likely to
She also talks about her mother and
siblings during her childhood and adolescent years. Her mother was as
gregarious as her father was quiet and studious. Her father was a minister who
preferred the solitude of his office.
When her father became unable to
care for himself and needed to be institutionalized, she started out in a place
for those who could come and go as they please. This was a mistake, as she soon
learned, when he went to the symphony and decided to leave before it was over.
This was the first of many nights that she and her husband spent searching the
streets of Boston for a demented man. Soon he was moved to another level of
care, and then another, etc. He became completely unable to do anything for
himself. Miller talks about all this in a very humanizing way and makes the
point that with few exceptions, people treated him in a dehumanizing way, such
as speaking about him as if he weren't in the room within listening range.
Miller is writing this book to
explain Alzheimer's and what it is like as a family member to live through it.
Writing in itself is a therapeutic way to deal with death and disease, but
Miller's intention is simply to tell her story and ask the question throughout
if earlier behaviors are predictive of later disease. Although caring for him
took a huge toll on Miller and her husband, she should be proud of sticking out
the tough times. It is truly an unselfish act. Those last months were the
hardest of course, and even though he no longer knew her she still visited him.
She can live with the knowledge that she was there for him when he needed her,
just as he had been there for her when she was a child with her questions very
seriously even if they seemed childish.
© 2004 Patricia Ferguson
Patricia Ferguson, PsyD,
is a licensed clinical psychologist who has many years of experience in both
the private practice sector and in community mental health. She has numerous
publications, the most recent being in Girl Wars by Cheryl Dellasaga,
PhD, and Clarisse Nixon, PhD. She also contributed to a book on adult female
aggression to be published in 2005. She is an author working on a book of
memoirs regarding relationships between therapists. She and her husband and son
reside in northern California.