After one of my last visits with my father, I noted his tendency to repeat common themes over and over. On a chart this looks a bit like an EKG with common themes arising over and over as he forgets and resets his mind. His dementia and brain damage keeps my dad grasping at what he can recall, what makes sense, his ability to react to it, and his ability to express what he’s thinking. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who’s got dementia or Alzheimers then you know exactly what I’m referring to. While we may gloss over the distinctions between those concepts, they really struggle. And their reaction to those struggles is why they’re emotionally unstable throughout these repeating cycles. I envisioned those thoughts looking something like this.
The truth is that this is only part of the puzzle. I have no idea what frame of mind he’ll have when I go to visit with him. I know who he is but I don’t know his state of mind. That may be benign or it may be completely the opposite. At times he seems to accept his situation and at times he’s very confused and upset at it. When he’s acceptant of it, he is easy going and realizes that he lives apart from his family. He’s essentially a neutral landscape to start a conversation from.
He was far from that on my last visit. After I got his attention and he asked me who I was, he said we had to talk so we went to a couple chairs and sat down. He proceeded to blast me for his family deserting him. He outright said we were throwing away our father. He’s in an assisted living home which I know is the best option at this point since he needs the structure and help. Even though I’ve come to grasp that this is the only real choice we have, it will never stop sucking that it’s come to this.
I’ve come to realize that his anger is coming from his inability to understand what’s happening to him. It does NOT mean that I’m a bad person. What it means is that his frustration is misdirected and there’s no possible resolution. He’ll never understand it, I can’t solve it, and any attempt to do so will only hurt me. We could have a blow up with me trying to explain things and him getting defensive. He won’t remember it and I’ll feel like crap for days – at best.
Logic doesn’t work because his memory is like Swiss cheese. He doesn’t know where I live despite having been to my house tens of times and he doesn’t remember that I got married despite knowing that I’ve got kids. He can’t make the connections that the kids had to come from somewhere and that they have a home. Not only that, his mind tells him that he missed out on these parts of his life and that greatly upsets him. It angers him that we haven’t told him about what we’ve been doing in the decades he can’t recall well. His emotion is hot red and based on his comprehension of the world, it’s well founded.
Redirecting him down a path is much more effective than explaining situations he can’t understand over and over. He was livid when he said that we were throwing him away and what a rotten thing that was to do. It was very hard to move him off of that ground he had his feet planted on and I nearly got up and left. He repeatedly got upset at my mother for not being there. She was at her sister’s 70th birthday party in another state and nobody had told him that she had a sister. Of course, she’s married to his best friend from high school and they’ve known each other their entire lives. His mind is missing those memories. They’re not fuzzy or hazy, they’re physically gone with no hope of returning.
What I did instead of attempting to get him to recognize that is to focus on me. He may not recall the last time I visited him, but I was there RIGHT NOW. Each time he went back to my mom not being there, I told him that I didn’t have her in my pocket or sitting in my car. I couldn’t produce her from thin air. This wasn’t always gentle and I had to get heated back at him to challenge him at times. I wasn’t actually mad at him but I know that I can push the right buttons to back him off.
I was there for him right then and wasn’t that nice. He still knows that he’s a father and that I’m his son who he loves so I kept hitting on the positives to make him feel better. Of course he was happy that I was there with him. This moved him away from the frustration and anger and got him to a more stable state. Not quite calm, but coming down out of his turmoil.
Once I got him to that point, it was easier to keep soothing him and make some jokes about little things like my beard (which is a new addition). He even joked that he wanted me to shave the next time I came by. Then he said that there was a movie playing in the other room which he wanted to finish watching. We shook hands, hugged, and he walked off with a smile on his face. The whole thing took about 40 minutes.
I depicted this exchange above. From a blank uncertain slate to volcanic to muddled but calming to cool and easy. The threads of our talks kept repeating with flare ups but his attitude put them in dramatically different lights. Each step was an attempt to de-escallate my dad and shift with his mind. It’s essentially like playing chess with The Hulk. I could almost see the color of his emotions as I talked him from a place of confusion and rage to one of familiarity and evenness. As a result, I felt better too.