Sometimes it is easy when I go see Dad. He is glad to see me, asks how I am doing, and seems pleased when I tell him my life is going well. We talk about the weather, about the headlines in the paper he usually has in his lap (he rarely opens it up to read, but seems to still enjoy looking at the front page), and about what my job is. He often knows my name, and usually knows I am his daughter.
Other times, the conversation is more difficult. Sometimes he isn’t sure who I am or where he is. He asks questions I am not sure how to answer. He asks about people I don’t know or wants to talk about times in his life that I have no clue about. He doesn’t remember being married or having children. He thinks he is traveling and on his way home to Minnesota (his childhood home). Sometimes, he wants to call people – his mother, his brother, his sisters – who have been gone for years. And it is hard for me to know how to respond.
When he first started having episodes of dementia, and he would ask about them, my mother and I would remind him that those people had died. Then I read more about Alzheimer’s and I realized that telling him over and over that his mother (or brother or sister) had died was putting him through the grieving process over and over and over. And that seemed cruel. So I stopped. It took Mom a while to be convinced that we didn’t have to be brutally honest with him, but she is now better about deflecting the question.
Now, when he wants to call them, I say things like, “well, she is in Minnesota, but I don’t think she can be reached right now” or “I don’t have his number on me – we’ll have to try another day” or “They aren’t home right now – we’ll try to reach them another time”. Most of the time, this works. I then try to redirect the conversation or distract him with another activity. Other times, he won’t be deterred. He has always had a stubborn streak, and when he gets an idea in his head, it can be difficult to get him to focus on something else.
I do my best to protect him from the pain of hearing the news over and over, but if he asks directly “she’s dead, isn’t she?”, I don’t feel I can lie to him. I try to say (as gently as possible), yes, Pop, she’s gone. I remind him that he was at the funeral or that he sent flowers. That always seems important to him.
Even though some conversations can be difficult, I am glad that he is still able to carry on a conversation. I know that the day will come when language will be lost completely, so even when he doesn’t make sense, I will continue to listen and try to respond as best I can.