Airplanes, Alzheimer’s, and My Grandfather’s Last Days

My mind jolted to a stop last week as I read an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about Barbara Bitros.

The 64-year-old woman is a former hospice nurse who doctors say may have early signs of Alzheimer’s. Bitros, an advocate for assisted suicide, has made plans to end her life because she is afraid of living with dementia.

She told the reporter:

“I fear the long, painful, humiliating process where you don’t know who you are or who anybody else is. Nobody should ever die like that.

“I want my grandchildren to remember me as a warm and loving person who’s still capable of reading them books and making them dinner.”

I felt a dark cloud of sorrow shadow my heart as I read her words, and my mind flashed back to memories of my grandfather.

When I was about 8 years old, I watched my grandfather’s life rapidly deteriorate because of Alzheimer’s. His dementia was doubly difficult because it was coupled with trauma from his World War II days. He was rarely at peace, even before the Alzheimer’s set in.

It was more than 20 years ago, but I still vividly remember those last days with Grandpa. Mostly, I remember the times when Grandpa played with my little brother. They often sat together on the kitchen floor playing with airplanes, balls, or tops. When they were together, Grandpa was calm and happy, and the whole family felt at peace.

Even when my grandfather went into the hospital, he connected with me and my siblings in meaningful ways. Grandpa often pulled out his harmonica and played us tunes from his military days. He didn’t remember who we were; he couldn’t read books to us or play on the floor, but we knew he loved us.


Had my grandfather decided to end his life before the Alzheimer’s, my brother never would have known him. My brother was only about 3 years old when Grandpa died, and his memories of Grandpa are few and vague.

But he remembers them playing airplanes together. Flying was something Grandpa always wanted to learn but never had the means to. Inspired by our grandfather, my brother worked hard and saved his money to begin flying lessons. He flew his first solo flight before he had his driver’s license.

Thinking back, I realize how meaningful my grandfather’s life was even in those last days. It’s why I hope Bitros won’t discount the value of her life, even as her memory fades. She clearly loves her grandchildren very much. I hope that she will see that, even with dementia, she can love and inspire her grandchildren just as my grandfather did.

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