by Peter Mangiola,RN~Growing old is not easy, quite the opposite; it is physically and emotionally painful and occasionally downright terrifying. For you, it is easy to remember your Dad as the competent, intelligent individual he was when you were a teenager. This, in turn, can make it very difficult to come to grips with your father’s mental decline, which makes it more likely that you might say something off-handed that can be hurtful.
Here are four examples of things you should avoid saying to your Dad, and what you should say instead:
“How could you forget that?” You may remember most of the 35-minute discussion you had with your father about getting his eye exam and ordering his new glasses. But for many seniors whose short-term memory is failing, those kinds of memories can literally vanish. If there is no impetus to move the memory from short-term to long-term storage, it is as though it never happened.
Instead say: “I’m putting a sticker right here on your nightstand, and another on your bathroom mirror, and another on your fridge.” The more often your father is reminded of his appointment, the more likely it is to make the move into long-term memory and become accessible. Make sure you keep the tone of the notes light and friendly.
“You could’ve done that if you had tried harder.” After all, how hard is it really to clean off the bathroom mirror? Well, actually, if you have shaky hands or arthritis in your knuckles, it can be extremely hard. Even something as ‘simple’ as tying your shoelaces can become almost impossible if you have neuropathy in your fingertips or a feeble grip.
Instead say: “Let’s work on finding a way we can make this easier.” There is nothing about growing older that cuts back on your desire to be able to live independently and do things for yourself. It just gets more difficult, but helping your father find alternatives that he can do by himself will help him maintain his dignity.
“Didn’t I show you how to use that just this morning?” There is a particular challenge for people with cognitive impairment (or simply bad eyesight) learning new technology, especially a technology with lots of (or subtle) buttons and controls. The best of us can be caught off-guard by a bit of tech that labels functions differently than we’re used to; try to draw on that fact to help you empathize.
Instead say: “Here are the most important buttons, and I’ll write you a little guide you can put up next to your monitor.” Remember, no matter what his level of memory loss or cognitive dysfunction, your dad is not stupid; he just needs a nudge once in a while to get his brain rolling in the right direction.
“What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” You were right in the middle of talking about your father’s first wife’s chicken and dumplings, when suddenly he’s complaining about the malfunctioning sprinkler in the back yard. “Going rogue” is fairly normal for people who are bored or just thinking about something different. Your father may just be less tactful about changing the subject.
Instead say: There are two good choices here. You can either roll with the topic change and just listen and respond accordingly, or (if the conversation was actually important to you) you can say “We were talking about Edsel’s dumplings; are you sure she used rosemary?” The important thing is to bring the conversation back around without pointing out Dad’s failure to properly converse.
All told, the important part to making your dad comfortable this Father’s Day is to remember that he is still the same person he always was; he wants to be valued, to participate, and to be part of the family. Concentrate on emphasizing what he can do and helping him do more (without pointing out his flaws and failures), and he’ll make it through his special day with fond memories.