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When my parents-in-law decided to build a new house after years of living in an old farmhouse, they built it so that it would accommodate a wheelchair.

There are no steps up to the front door, the bathroom has an open shower area and there is even a ramp down to the basement workshop.

The doorways are extra wide and the kitchen is open to the rest of the house. There are low windows all around, framing what my father-in-law called the most beautiful view in the most beautiful place on Earth the first time I met him.

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I found it a little odd at the time. They were both healthy - he was still working full-time on the Prince Edward Island farm he had built from scratch after immigrating to Canada from the Netherlands in the 1950s.

Planning for wheelchairs?

I've heard of others who have done the same thing and it's even come to make sense to me, from a practical point of view. I have a friend with a disabled son and it would be a lot easier for them to visit us if I had a more wheelchair-friendly home. Over time, I came to see the sense in my in-laws' decision.

Except my father-in-law didn't lose his mobility. He lost his mind.

You can't build a house to accommodate your memory loss or your growing inability to bathe, dress and check the kettle for water before you put it on to boil.

The last time he visited, my husband was trying to think of activities they could do together. He found a puzzle for the two of them to work on. One hundred pieces.

His father wasn't interested at first but the handy thing about dementia is that the afflicted person doesn't remember he doesn't care for something, doesn't remember he just told you he would rather sit in his chair and nap. And so with a bit of coaxing he started to work on it.

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It was much like the puzzles we did with our sons when they were starting kindergarten, but it was too hard for him to figure out where to put even one piece. Rob found himself passing pieces to his dad and helping him put them in place.

The puzzle was simply a way to engage my father-in-law's mind. If he isn't encouraged to do something, he will generally sit in his chair, read the paper (over and over) and nap. One of his greatest pleasures is eating.

He doesn't remember much about the farm that consumed his life for so many years. He doesn't remember that he was the head of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board or a leader in the church or a volunteer at the local jail. He doesn't know how much money he has in the bank or how his investments are doing.

He used to follow politics and read The Economist and write letters to the editor when he disagreed with stories in the newspaper. Now he doesn't remember what the weather is like outside unless he looks out the window. And by the time he looks out the window, he has forgotten he was checking on the weather.

I remember when he first started to forget. His occasional lapses in judgment or memory seemed like an odd moment of temporary insanity. I would think, "What's up with him?"

One time we were going to follow him to a favourite beach. A trip that should have taken 15 minutes became an hour-long marathon. We were perplexed because he always had an internal compass that somehow led him correctly where he had to go even without consulting a map. It never occurred to us that his mind was starting to leave him.

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It was especially hard when my mother-in-law died after many years of fighting cancer. He had the feeling that something terrible had happened but he wasn't sure from day to day what it was. On the morning of her funeral, he woke up and asked my husband, "Did Mom die, or did I just have a terrible dream?"

This man who had been so strong and bold, sure and argumentative was meek and mild, heartbroken and confused.

Once in a very great while he has moments of clarity when he seems to remember everything that has happened to him, even in the past few years. He is aware that he can't usually remember and he is able to reflect on who he has become.

Mostly he seems to be at peace, accepting even this phase in his life.

He had a moment of clarity the other day while talking to one of his sons. He remembered his wife and he knew she was gone. He talked about being lonely and missing her.

And he wanted to know, "Did I tell her that she was a wonderful woman?"

"Yes Dad, every day."

Michele Visser-Wikkerink lives in Winnipeg.

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