Q: My husband recently left me, and my father with dementia always asks where Bob is. It’s very upsetting for me to keep dredging this up, what can I do?
Oh boy. You are dealing with grief from two traumatic events – the end of your marriage and the loss of a normal relationship with your father. Either one of those alone can exhaust the stress limit of anyone, and you are facing both at the same time.
It sounds like with that one question he’s reminding you that two significant relationships in your life have taken sharply painful turns. It feels like he’s saying, “Tell me again about your big failure” over and over. Also, your father with dementia isn’t there for you in your time of need. He’s totally disconnected from it. I know that hurts.
If this continues, you’re either going to snap, and your dad will be completely devastated and not understand that, or you’ll stop visiting. Clearly you care a lot about your dad or you would have already pulled back.
Before you get to that point, let’s recognize what the disease is doing to your father with dementia. Let’s think of his “memory lane” as a big highway that’s going straight in only one direction. That’s not the same direction yours is going. On Dad’s highway, when you show up, he sees big flashing signs that say “family” and “Bob.” So he’s prompted to ask about Bob.
But I see a positive aspect to his repeated questions. I think the reason he’s asking is because of his incredible empathy and love for you. Think about what this would look like if your father didn’t have dementia – he is asking about his baby’s life, and what he knows to be a key relationship in that life. What is hard for you is that question is completely out of context now.
So, let’s try to put it back in context. What needs to happen is for you to become really conscious that this is not about your divorce. It’s about your dad’s love for you and attempt to connect with you. You can’t change your father’s dementia, but you can change your own internal narrative, and the way you respond.
Try reframing his question for yourself. When he asks about Bob, I would repeat to myself, “My father is invested in my life. My father is invested in my life.” And then answer with something simple, like, “Bob’s not here today,” or “Bob is good, Dad, how are you?”
Move in a positive direction by changing the subject. You can ask him how he’s doing, or talk about a happy family trip from your childhood. Or suggest an activity the two of you can do together. Plan ahead and go visit him armed with a memory or new story to share, or a few questions to ask.
You don’t have to carry this burden alone. Build your team by reaching out to others. If other family members spend time with Dad, ask them how they handle conversational challenges. Or ask his caregiver(s) for advice. Caregivers often have specific tactics they can share.
Ultimately, remember that your dad cares about you. He’s remembering something about your life that’s significant to you, and he’s making a connection. Look beyond the ravages of your father’s dementia and know that Dad is still there for you.