27 Sep 20210 Comments
Father and son are each named James Heatherly, but everyone calls them Big Jim and Little Jim. Now 88 and living at the Hebrew Home [RiverSpring Living] in Riverdale, N.Y., Big Jim has a reputation for being the life of every party. “He’s always loved dancing,” his son says. “If you put on Donna Summer, he’d be dancing in his wheelchair.”
Little Jim grew up in suburban New Jersey. His parents married in 1957 and split in 1964 when Big Jim came out as gay. The elder Jim moved to Manhattan where he worked for an insurance company before relocating to California with his partner Bill.
Heatherly vividly recalls the day several years ago when he first recognized a change in his dad, who had moved to Arizona. The phone rang at three in the morning. On the line was Big Jim, “completely confused and in a panic.” The son instructed his father to call a niece who lived nearby and then called an ambulance. At the hospital, Big Jim was treated for dehydration and released. But when the episodes of disorientation grew more frequent and severe, Big Jim moved in with his son in New Jersey. “He was safe under my roof and had a full-time aide, but he couldn’t take care of himself,” says Heatherly.
The Heatherly family medical history is rife with cognitive decline. Big Jim was one of eight siblings – all but two have been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Although most of his dad’s decline took place over the span of a decade, Heatherly was unprepared for the abrupt change that occurred just days after his father turned 88. The cheerful, gregarious guy who could captivate an entire room with his storytelling and his infectious, cackling laugh, was unable to speak or recognize anyone around him.
For Jim Heatherly, caring for his father is a joy he calls “the easy part.” The hard part, he says, is “watching him disappear.” Still, he has hope. “My dad’s still in there, but we can’t reach him at the moment,” he says.