I have a 4-year-son and an 84-year-old father. This is a conversation I recently had with one of them:
Me: What did you do yesterday?
Him: Oh, it was terrible.
Me: Why? What happened?
Him: Some people came into my room and took me to a forest. Then they left me there alone.
Him: I walked around for hours. I was scared and hungry.
Me: How’d you get back?
Him: Someone found me and took me back home.
If you think the “him” refers to my 4-year-old, you’d be wrong. The conversation was with my agitated 84-year-old father who actually believed this happened to him. I can assure you it did not. My widowed father is a fairly active man for his age. He lives in a nice senior living facility. My son is a healthy, precocious kid. He lives at home and goes to preschool. On the surface, these two people are far more different than similar. My father, for example, was an accomplished physician. My son pretends he’s a pilot. My dad has travelled the world and will eat almost anything. My son likes to play in his room and does not like green beans. My father, however, does have quickly advancing Alzheimer’s disease, and this has created stark similarities between the two of them.
My dad’s short-term memory has become nearly non-existent; his longterm memory is there but getting cloudier by the week, and his cognitive abilities and what was once an extraordinary talent to connect and interact with others has dwindled significantly. As my son has evolved out of toddlerhood, my father has devolved into a sort of “geriatric toddlerhood.” At 4 and 84, they’ve crossed developmental stages, and I’ve been put in the odd and most unexpected position of having to “parent” them simultaneously.
The simplest explanation or instruction to my father is immediately forgotten. The same question will be asked two or three or 15 times. Rarely a tiny morsel of a conversation will be retained, but more often the slate is wiped clean. My “other child” seems to also suffer from a form of short-term memory loss. If I tell him not to jump on the couch, he will stop. Five minutes later, he will be leaping off the cushions again. My son will latch onto a topic, say, clouds, and ask the same question over and over again even after a thorough and illustrated explanation. “But whyyyyyyy does it rain?” In both cases, I find myself repeating the same response numerous times. With my father, the answers don’t sink in. My son just likes hearing me repeat myself.
One of my greatest joys as a parent is introducing my son to the wonders of the world. The simplest things can elicit the most sincere reactions of awe. I can hold his attention for 30 minutes straight just blowing bubblegum bubbles. My father is equally impressed with life’s innovations. One recent night in our kitchen, he picked up what was to him an odd instrument. He asked me what it was. I looked at him, trying to determine if he was joking and quickly realized he wasn’t. “Dad, that’s a corkscrew. You know, to open bottles,” I said. He marveled at it again, slowly turning and examining it before asking me if it was a new invention. Another time he went on and on about how he’d never tasted the delicious and “exotic” fruit I’d just given him. It was a normal peach.
When my son discovers something new, it’s wonderful to see his imagination blossoming with possibilities. To see a fully-grown, educated and well-travelled man do the same is one of the more heartbreaking things I’ve ever had to witness — even if it was a particularly good peach. I find myself spouting parental clichés a lot these days. Things like “Do you need to pee?” or “Leave that there; it doesn’t belong to you.” Sadly, I say these things to my father as often as I say them to my son. About the time my son figured out how to put on his own underpants, I witnessed my dad struggling to put on a t-shirt. “There are too many holes. I don’t know where to put what” was his matter-of-fact rationalization. On several occasions, I’ve found my dad trying to roll a sweater up his legs, at a loss as to why it wasn’t working. My son does this kind of thing too, but in his case, he’s in on the joke.
I consider one of my main parenting duties to be setting appropriate boundaries and guiding my child towards what’s right and safe. My son now mostly understands that he shouldn’t draw on the walls with markers and that he shouldn’t walk out of the house unaccompanied. Just as my son is gaining common sense, my dad is losing it. In trying to decorate his room with photos and personal artwork, my father glued them directly to the wall, making it impossible to remove them without ripping the drywall. Without supervision, my dad will literally walk away from home and not know how to get back. I’m never sure what disaster I will find after leaving my son or my father unattended. I don’t want to imagine what would happen if I left them alone together.
When our son turned 2 and a half, my wife and I started the hunt for a preschool. At the same time, I was looking for a place where my father could spend some productive daytime hours. We found a great school for my son and a wonderful senior daycare for my dad. Essentially, there was not much difference between the two places. Both were cheerful with excellent staff, and each offered a variety of activities such as crafts and music. Both also offered abundant opportunities to meet and socialize with others. The first day of “school” for each of them was bizarrely similar. I led each by the arm into class. Both were nervous. Both clung close to me, eyes darting around this unfamiliar new landscape as friendly staff approached and greeted us warmly. It took some coaxing, but eventually each let go of my arm and joined the group. Once they did, it was as if they’d been going there for years. Now I get the weekly influx of expressionist artwork from both of them. Both of their art hangs in my home. Every so often, I’m called in for a “Parent/Teacher” conference for my son and a “Your Parent/Teacher” conference for my dad. Both are doing well, enjoy their activities and seem to be quite popular with the other kids.
There are many other examples of this overlap between my dad and my son that nag and keep me on edge. There’s the constant fear that I will lose either of them in a crowd. There’s the effort and oversight it takes to get them dressed or to the bathroom. There are the frustrated outbursts they both have on occasion from their inability to express themselves effectively — my son because he just hasn’t learned enough words and my father because he’s forgotten too many. Lest we forget the anticipatory dread of going out into the world with two people who possess no “thought filter.” I’ve had to explain to my son and my father on more than one occasion why saying that someone is fat or smelly while also standing within earshot of said person is “not OK.” “But they are!” is their unabashed response.
Despite it all, I’ve discovered something valuable and meaningful. This experience with my dad, as stressful and difficult as it has been at times, has profoundly changed me. For a long time, I would find it difficult and annoying to handle my father’s repeated questions. I’d find myself angrily thinking, “Damn it, you were a doctor for %$&#* sake, how can you not know that?” It would make me resentful having to cue and correct my father’s behavior. “Really?! You think the refrigerator is a closet?” My dad’s worsening condition made me incredibly frustrated, angry and bitter. I’d have to resist the urge to yell at him or walk away in utter aggravation. He’d become a child, and I’d become his parent. I hated it. I resented what was happening and, as unfair as it sounds, was starting to resent him as well. Then it hit me. This odd role-reversal made me realize that life is, and forgive the Disney reference here, a circle — or maybe a bell curve, depending on how much of a geek you are. We start at zero, acquire the elements that make us who we are, and then, if we last long enough, it all starts to go away.
This fresh way of thinking about my dad’s condition altered my perception and has impressed upon me that his mental demise isn’t deserving of my anger or resistance. It’s worthy of my patience and understanding. My dad and my son are two sides of life’s coin. Since the onset of my dad’s disease, I’ve had to become increasingly more adept at thinking quickly on my feet to redirect his behavior or adjust his mood. I’ve had to choose patience and humor over frustration and anger in dealing with his missteps and repeated inquiries. I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t help to deal in facts because he has a different sense of reality. I’ve learned that what matters is to address his emotional state and work from there. It’s required constant assessment and an evolving strategy to recognize what actions will work best at any given moment. And therein lies the biggest realization of them all. This is parenting.
All of the techniques and skills I’ve had to develop to take care of my dad are exactly the ones I need to raise my son. Ultimately, becoming a better son to my father has made me a better father to my son. I’m currently at the top of the bell curve I mentioned earlier. From this vantage point, I’m able to see the side I just came up. And, if genetics have anything to say about it, I also see firsthand the side I’m about to head down.
I have two clear jobs. The first is to help my dad reach the end of his path with comfort and dignity. The second is to guide my son on his ascent with wisdom, acceptance and compassion. I want my son to appreciate and remember the kind of father I was to him just as I remember the wonderful father mine was to me. I want him to have the memory of a happy and rich childhood and appreciate the love he has in his life. Could there be a more important achievement for a parent? Providing all of this for my son does have one other selfish upside. I want him to think fondly of me and act with compassion when he’s at the top of his bell curve and I’m trying to hang my pants in the refrigerator for the fifth time.
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