Susan Dix Lyons: Distance

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The elderly with dementia are hard for loved ones to reach under the best circumstances. But with today’s enforced distance, they’re even more unreachable. Susan Dix Lyons has this Perspective.

They put me on hold only to come back nine minutes later to tell me no one answered. Nine minutes of listening to a recorded message about the “safe and enriching experience” offered on the other side of the line.

I breathe.

I am waiting to speak to my dad, who has dementia. Like 1 1/2 million other older adults, he lives in a nursing home – a memory care center on the other side of the country. The coronavirus pandemic means he is no longer allowed visitors from the outside menacing world.

Isolated behind this new wall, no one from his family can touch him, hold his crooked hand. Now, in addition to being locked inside of his mind, he is locked away physically from the people who love him most. This is for his protection. This is good.


This is brutal.

My dad has been a resident at the home for three years. Our distance has meant that I haven’t seen him often. But this new loss of contact for him – and for me, sheltered at home in California – has increased my worry and regret.

Time is something different now, not measured by minutes and hours but by how long we must stay away from each other, the distance from now until our freedoms are restored.

I’m sitting in my car when the receptionist from the nursing home calls me back. She gets my dad, and I finally hear his voice, thin as a thread. I recite the names of everyone who loves him, hoping he remembers. I say the names slowly, loudly and occasionally he repeats one that wakes something inside of him. “Ruby.” “Cole.”

He is my dad, my beginning, who is at his end during a time when the end feels more threatening and embodied to all of us. I love you, I say – but he does not respond.

I sit there listening to his breath, which is labored and short. And then I hear my own breath, and try to match his rhythm, a panting rise and fall that makes me feel like I am running or drowning or spinning too fast on moving ground.

I hold the line, breathing too hard with my dad, imagining us in parallel.

With a Perspective, I’m Susan Dix Lyons.

Susan Dix Lyons lives in St. Helena.