At the end of last week, I had occasion to reflect on some aspects of parenting as they pertain to dementia. I’ve been doing my best to keep things together with my father’s dementia situation and I’m trying to be a good father to my own sons. The daily ups and downs are obviously stressful and can take their toll on me. Buried in here are some lessons for how to behave in troubled times while keeping perspective. I’ve got to live up to my own standards, live up to what I think my parents wanted to instill in me, and set a standard for my kids. That’s a lot to juggle while at the same time I only get one set of actions.
First, some background. As of this writing, my dad is in an assisted living center specializing in memory care. He’s physically healthy and is has always dictated what he wants to do. Even though he’s in his late 70’s, he’s clearly in the best shape of the people living there. He also has no awareness at all of his dementia. He is used to calling his own shots and this arrangement goes WAY against his grain. We all know this yet we seem to have no other options. He shouldn’t be driving, his self control fluctuates to extremes, he can’t make proper decisions, and he truly has the potential to be violent. This made the decision to put him in the facility both clear cut and extremely complicated. My interactions with him since he was placed there are one-track: Get me out of here!
I’m not generally one to go to social media and post something just to get a reaction or feel better about myself. I did call on my safety net after an upsetting phone conversation with my dad though. There’s a major conflict in being the person he’s looking to for help and knowing that I’m giving him all the help I can. It’s what he needs but not at all what he wants. Fortunately, my friends did more than click the Like button. In addition to encouragement, I got some great insight and I’ve taken some highlights below. The pain involved in being responsible for somebody with dementia is real and has impacts on care givers and afflicted in vastly different ways.
After the call, I went on a solo walk through the neighborhood. I was stressed and my 16 year old and wife were barking at each other while she was helping him with homework. While I was walking, my mind wandered back to the day before we had my father picked up by the local police so we could get him treatment. I was on the phone with him for nearly an hour while he said some blood-chilling things. During the call, my wife was walking with me and my brother rang in but had to drop after a while because it was so troubling. Needless to say, the walk didn’t clear my head as much as I’d hoped. As I was almost home, I saw my son walking up the street towards me to talk.
It turns out that my wife didn’t put him up to this at all. He realized on his own that I was under a huge amount of stress and came to apologize for adding to it. I told him I’d like to keep the walk going and that I wanted to talk with him about it. My 12 year old has been giving me lots of hugs but isn’t as exposed to what’s going on and the older boy’s always been emotionally perceptive. I explained about how the things which are happening are both easy and difficult at the same time. I asked how he thought I was handling it and he told me that I’ve actually been really calm about things and very stable. That was a massive relief to me on a few fronts. The events may have even made me more introspective in ways which help me prioritize what to get upset over or just get over.
I can honestly say that many years ago I was the guy shouting in his car at traffic, getting upset over little things, and trying to impose my will on my surroundings. I recognized that and decided I wanted to handle things differently. I think that the “before” behavior probably came from what I saw in my father and that the “after “ is a big progression. It’s different takes on what it means to be a man. I’m very thankful that I was able to look at myself in the mirror and change. I’m even more thankful that I did so in time for my sons to look at me as someone who can decide what’s important and act on it with perspective. It’s very much changed my world view and I expect that it will be a part of whatever legacy I leave.
That’s so important because of what my friend pointed out below “…know he is not the person he used to be, but you can be the person he always hoped you’d be”. That ties together my thoughts on being both a son and a father. My father may not realize it but I’m doing what I need to and what he’d expect me to do if he had clarity. At the same time, I feel that I’m teaching my children what I think it means to be a man. Adversity is the time to test what you’re really made of and dealing with a parent who has dementia certainly qualifies as adversity.
I’ll keep struggling with it while knowing that I need to be the bridge between what came before and what will be tomorrow. My thoughts were much more clear when my son and I got back from the walk. It can be trying as a parent to understand that you’re having the right impact with your children. The expectations are high and there’s no more significant success or failure.
Thanks to all the friends and family who keep me going. You were invaluable with your insight and continue to be there. I’m lucky to have you.
My brother’s standing on his toes in the picture above.