Dear Carol: My dad was the primary caregiver for my mom during the first years that she was sick with cancer, but during her last years, he began to show signs of Alzheimer’s. When Mom died, Dad was devastated. He seemed to comprehend what happened and retain the memory and the grief. Now, though, he’s starting to ask for Mom. When this began, we reminded him what happened, but the result was horrible. His first reaction was grief, but that quickly turned to anger at us for “trying to fool him.” Eventually, we convinced him that yes, Mom was gone, but we said she’d “wait for him.” That seemed to calm him and eventually, he got on with life. Two weeks later, though, we went through it again. We know this is the progression of the disease, but what do we do? — SW.
Dear SW: I’m so sorry that your family is going through this painful time. You must be struggling all the more because you know that you’ll soon repeat this sad exchange.
As you know, your dad’s short-term memory was already severely damaged when your mom died, so it’s not surprising that he no longer retains the memory of your mom’s death, and his current stage has him reaching farther and farther back into his life. Most likely, now he thinks that he is a young, happily married man who misses his wife, so it’s natural to want to know where she is.
There’s no perfect approach to this common but incredibly sad scenario. In my opinion, you handled this correctly when your mom died. Your dad’s dementia was present, but he was still able to understand what happened. What’s changed now is his dementia has advanced to the point that he can no longer remember each time you tell him that your mom has passed away. Each time he is told, the information is fresh. To me, it makes no sense to put him through this agony on a repeated basis.
You could say to him, “Do you miss her, Dad?” This validates his feeling that he is heard. He may then say, “Yes, I miss her.” At this point, you may want to say, “She misses you, too, but you’ll see her soon.” This, we hope, will soothe him somewhat. Then you can say, “Let’s watch a movie for now.” If you can carry this off in a breezy fashion, he’s likely to agree to the movie (or whatever distraction you choose) and, after a short time, he’ll probably change to another topic. This is not a permanent solution as you know, but some version of this may be the best that you can do.
If it’s any comfort, he will likely move on from this stage, though there will be new challenges. I hope that you are going to a support group or participating in one online because just hearing from other people who have been through this can help.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.