The agonizing mind games of Alzheimer’s
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked me. He was about 84 years old and interested in a date.
Sitting before him with my young son on my lap, I gave him the bad news: “No, but I have a husband and two kids. And I am your daughter, Dad.”
My father’s confusion was the consequence of his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. One day he recognized me, the next, maybe not. Though my brain could process that, my heart could not. No matter how realistic I tried to be about my father’s decline and our awkward exchanges, I found it impossible to accept that he really didn’t know me.
Admitting to myself that we had lost our father-daughter connection even though he would be physically in my life for years to come was playing tricks with my own, still-intact brain.
“Does he still know who you are?” was the first question friends asked when they inquired about Dad. I explained that some days he would proudly introduce me around the nursing home: “This is my daughter, Kathy.” Other days it seemed I was just a familiar face that he couldn’t quite place. “Don’t you live near the ocean?” he would ask, struggling for the pieces of memory that still floated through his brain.
My husband tried to reason with me. “You know that’s not your dad anymore,” he would say. But there were comforting reminders of my old dad. There were his laugh and traces of his old sense of humor. There was the familiar, confiding tone to his voice, even when he could barely form words.
His spirit would come, then float away.
The day my family decided to send Dad out of state to live near my oldest sister, I tried to explain to him that he was moving. I told him that, while I wasn’t going along, more family would await his arrival. I was nervous for his reaction.
“Well, thank you for being so nice,” he said. “I don’t have any family. My wife died.”
“Well, I’m your daughter, Dad,” I gently persisted, like always.
He laughed, not believing: “Oh, that’s nice of you.”
Long after that day, I visited him at his new care facility. “Hi, babe!” he said when he saw me, so happily and with such familiarity. It felt so good. Then a nurse approached. “Hi, babe!” he said to her.
Shortly before he died, I walked into his hospital room after not seeing him for some time. “Look, Dad, it’s Kathy,” my sisters said, hopefully. He was agitated. His eyes were empty. He looked at me blankly and turned away, clearly at the end of his disease.
Even then, I manufactured excuses. Maybe he’s choosing not to acknowledge me, I kidded myself, because he’s mad that I haven’t visited.
Alzheimer’s played its mind games on me for sure. I guess I used whatever coping mechanisms I could to get through that difficult time.
But I know I wasn’t alone in that. After Dad died, I called to break the news to Roy, one of his childhood friends. Roy offered his condolences and reminisced.
Before he hung up, he hesitated. There was one more thing he wanted to know.
“Do you think he still remembered me?”
I answered as I knew he, and my dad, would want me to. “Yes, Roy, I believe he did.”
Tyrer, a freelance writer and former editor of Adweek magazine, lives in Manhattan Beach with her husband and sons. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.