Bursack: Don't let father's post-stroke problems keep you away

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist. Special to The Forum
Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist. Special to The ForumSpecial to The Forum

Dear Carol: About six months ago, my dad had a stroke that’s left him struggling to get out his words. Since he was always so eloquent, this is extra hard on him. I dread visiting him at the nursing home because my visits seem to cause him more frustration than pleasure. I know he wants me to visit, but maybe the fact that we’d always had fun debating ideas makes it harder on him since I bring back memories of better days. I love him and want to spend as much time with him as I can, but how do I do this without causing him grief? — RE.

Dear RE: I’m sorry that you and your dad are having trouble communicating after his stroke. This is common, but that doesn’t make it easier.

My uncle had similar problems, so I do have some understanding of how you’re feeling. Because of my uncle’s stroke, he developed what’s called expressive aphasia. This disorder causes people to have trouble finding the correct word no matter how familiar the topic. For example, one day my uncle was terribly agitated but finally shouted out the words, “Fix my magazines!” Puzzled, I straightened up some of his journals, yet he shouted louder “NO! Fix my magazines!”

Each item that I pointed to brought fresh fury until I opened his bed stand drawer and held up his razor. His answer? “Yes! Fix my magazines!” The hardest part was that he knew he wasn’t using the right word, but he just couldn’t find it.

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Your dad’s situation sounds similar to my uncle’s, so I can offer a few suggestions.

  • Check to see if he’s receiving speech therapy and if he’s not, work with them to set it up.
  • When you talk with your dad, try to use yes or no questions as much as possible. That may or may not lower his frustration level, but it’s worth a try.
  • A written list of basic words like "hungry," "thirsty" and "bathroom" can help him communicate those needs by pointing to the word that he’s trying to say. Be prepared for him to relax more or, conversely, to be angry because he feels that it's demeaning. If he’s OK with it, share the list with the staff. If not, go back patiently waiting for him to express himself.
  • When you visit, plan on sitting with him while you watch a vintage movie, or even reading to him if he’d enjoy that. Listening to music together can also be a pleasure.
  • Touch is a vital human need, so don’t forget to hold his hand or just place your hand on his arm from time to time while you sit together.

I want to stress that you are likely doing fine. Keeping yourself calm when he has frustrating moments will help you both.

You can’t fix this for him, so let him see that you love him the way he is. What’s important is that you continue to spend time with him.

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 carolbradleybursack@mindingourelders.com.