A Look at Rapid-Onset Dementia: My Dad’s Sudden Dementia

By Sylvia Stone | July 5th, 2023

"Je est un autre." – Arthur Rimbaud

It took six men to catch my screaming, naked father and strap him to a hospital gurney.

My dad, the 80-year-old pacifist Buddhist,
the six-foot-one king of calm,
the master of nice who will let anyone, and I mean anyone, merge into his traffic lane during rush hour.

Later that day, I called him in his hospital ward. I live in Spain with my husband and son. The phone, at first, was my only portal to my California-based father.

Sylvia is on the phone for you, John,” the nurse said. “Do you recognize that name?”

“Sylvia-number-one-secret-service,” he said in one rapid breath. Did Dad think I worked for the government?

“Hi Dad.” I said, swallowing tears, when they put him on.

“The world is going to end. We’re going to be bombed,” he interjected.

Mumbling. Spitting. Slurring. Screams. What was happening to my father? Was he on drugs? Did he have a brain tumor? Was this a psychotic break? Maybe he was reliving his early twenties when he loaded bombs onto planes during the Vietnam war. Or maybe he’d drifted back to even earlier years — a Jewish toddler hiding from the Nazis in a hog pen in rural France.


Dad’s first night in the hospital, they zip-tied his hands to keep him from hurting himself or others. And Mom messaged me graphic evidence of his mental breakdown — pictures of my naked father jacking off in a psychotic rage. I deleted them immediately. She re-sent. I deleted them again.

“I don’t want him back in this house,” she texted, clearly traumatized after several days coping with his aggressive and scary behaviors. But I was too shocked and upset to process her fear.

“Never send those pictures again,” I replied.

The next day, my youngest sister went to a sandwich place for lunch. Just as she grabbed the order, her phone buzzed. Mom had sent her the very same pictures.

“Wtf,” my sister texted me. “There’s no way I’m eating this meatball sub now.”

That’s when my tragicomedy fit started. “Is this what they mean by sandwich generation,” I texted back.

While I coped with tasteless jokes, my shaken mom and two younger sisters visited Dad in the hospital, bringing straws and cups of Ensure to his lips. Dad was having difficulty swallowing, as if he had forgotten how.

That’s when it hit me: Dad might die soon.


“I felt robbed. I wished for the
‘good dementia’ – as if there
is such a thing.”

A week later we got Dad’s diagnosis: a rapid onset of late-stage dementia. His mind had deteriorated long before the doctors could run a single test.

I’ve reported on dementia as a video journalist for years. There are typically seven stages of the disease, and the decline can take eight to ten years. It begins with forgetfulness and driving problems. Then there is trouble with routine tasks. After several years sufferers display confusion, disorientation, and begin wandering. It’s around this time when the aggression strikes, followed by a lack of bodily control. It’s a sad, but lengthy, goodbye.

Not for Dad. In two months, he went from a jovial grandpa planning a family barbecue to a hospice patient in a diaper.

I felt robbed. I wished for the “good dementia” – as if there is such a thing. The long type, identified quickly, where I could cope by spending those first years of the disease carefully documenting his life story. I’d write down every laugh, every misstep, every heroic gesture, before they were lost forever. My own way of preserving his dignity as the disease progressed.

I learned later from a friend that Dad’s sudden bursts of testosterone (accompanied by its shocking side effect) are common in older men with dementia. But it’s not the kind of thing you’ll read about on WebMD. Nor had I ever encountered it in my reporting. When it comes to late stage dementia, many things are so difficult to witness they remain secrets, whispered between the ones who know.


Our early phone calls didn’t go smoothly. Many days Dad forgot how to use the phone. He’d drop the receiver and yell “hello” at the hospital room; or, worse, hang up before I could muster a greeting. Still, I continued to call.

The uncertainty was difficult. I wondered:
Why call if he’s already gone? And at what point do I let myself grieve?

Then, one day, the phone call worked and he answered “Hello.” In French. Dad hadn’t spoken the language since he immigrated to New York City from Paris as a teen. Swayed by America’s call for assimilation, he quickly abandoned his mother tongue. Soon he forgot it all together. Yet suddenly, sixty-five years later, “Ça va” and “alors” were falling from his lips.

“I learned later from a friend that Dad’s
sudden bursts of testosterone are common
in older men with dementia. But it’s not
the kind of thing you’ll read about on WebMD.”

That’s the irony of dementia: the so-called disease of forgetting is, actually, a retriever of memories. It descends on the brain like a cobweb, catching memory fragments in its strands. And in a flick those buried truths, things you couldn’t recover otherwise, surface in a frenzy.

That same phone call, between bursts of French, Dad offered a precise reportage of the day of my birth. “You were born with your eyes wide open,” he told me. “You looked like you had just arrived from Neverland. The doctors were shocked.”

We laughed. It was the first time I heard this, but it made sense. Diving head-first into things is definitely my style. No surprise I was born ready to rumble. The call gave me hope. Maybe he was coming back to us. Maybe the doctors made a mistake.

Then Dad’s voice turned serious. “They tell me I’m having problems with my memory,” he said. “I try, but I keep losing my thoughts. I feel like this inverted eye, like I’m looking at the world from way up high.”

“That’s the irony of dementia:
the so-called disease of forgetting is,
actually, a retriever of memories.”

“But you’re remembering now,” I said, my tone a bit desperate.

“In Buddhism life and death are two sides of the same coin,” Dad told me. “It’s very humanistic of you to keep me alive right now, but why? I’m ready to be born again.”

“Because we are family and we love you. That’s what family does.”

“Family,” he replied, as if tasting the word on his lips for the first time. Then he paused and took a long breath. “We’re going to be bombed.”

Dad died one month later.

IMAGE: ‘Paris, Avenue Foch, Siegesparade”’ ADN-ZB/Archiv II. Weltkrieg 1939-45 Frankreich. Am 14. Juni 1940 nahmen die faschistischen deutschen Truppen Paris ein. Siegesparade einer deutschen Division auf der.
This work is published under an alias to protect the author’s privacy.

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One thought on “A Look at Rapid-Onset Dementia: My Dad’s Sudden Dementia

  1. Thank you for sharing. It helps to read and understand what is starting to happen to my dad.

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