Dear Carol: My dad has mixed dementia. We moved him from his home to live with us when the memory care unit he’d been waiting for stopped accepting new people because of COVID-19. This arrangement is working well, but he’s itching to get out and do something fun before winter.
Dad used to love the fall season for hunting at his lake cabin, which is about 50 miles away. The cabin was sold several years ago, and he gave up his guns, but when he could still drive, he continued to enjoy traveling to the lakes area in the fall. We’d like to take him on a short jaunt to see what’s left of the color and just give him an outing, but we worry about how he’ll react when he sees the familiar landscape. I’m afraid that in his currently confused state he’ll think he’s going to go hunting because quite often his memories of the past are more real than the current reality. What do you think? — SM.
Dear SM: It’s kind of you to think of things that your dad has enjoyed in the past and try to replicate what you can. Obviously, there’s no way that either you or I can predict how he’ll react, and I agree that there’s a risk that he’ll become upset, but I think in general it’s a wonderful idea.
Your question reminds me of my uncle who had lived in the Washington, D.C., area for decades. His favorite season there was spring, which is their cherry blossom season, and our flowering crabs always reminded him of the blossoms. I’d take him for weekly drives around our city, particularly the lush college campuses, and it was the highlight of his week. This wasn’t as complicated or personal as your dad’s connection to the lakes area and hunting, but I mention it because his pleasure in reminiscing was rewarding to us both.
RELATED COLUMNS: Bursack: No respite for family caregiver during COVID | Bursack: Not every child can be a long-term caregiver | Bursack: Grown children shouldn’t try to force beliefs on dying parent | Bursack: Mom should pay longtime friend for shopping, errands | Bursack: Caregivers can get stuck in fight-or-flight mode
It’s true that your dad could want to go to “his” cabin or worse, want his guns. The cabin having new owners is the lesser of the risk but knowing someone else lives there could upset him. The guns, of course, could be a more serious problem, but you won’t have them with you, so you have plenty of time for distraction.
It’s also possible that he could be depressed as he becomes more aware of what he’s lost. Having said that, he will more likely not only handle his memories fine but enjoy the drive immensely. With dementia, there’s a risk in nearly anything we try.
I’m sure by now you know that even if you could predict how he’d feel today, tomorrow could be different. We can hope that he will feel pleasantly nostalgic. If there are problems, you’ll handle them by offering compassionate reassurance and if necessary, distraction. Perhaps a stop at a small-town cafe?
I hope that your family can enjoy this outing and maybe even get in a few more before the weather turns.
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 through the contact form on her website.