Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My father has dementia. Unfortunately, his dementia manifests itself as paranoia and aggressive language. He doesn’t physically harm anybody, but he is very difficult to be around.
My kids are in middle and high school and are starting to object to visiting their grandfather. My oldest child has good memories of him, but the younger two mostly remember him as he is now, a belligerent man with volume control issues.
I am torn on whether I should make them visit their grandfather out of a sense of obligation, or respect their wishes. Once, when it was just the two of us, my youngest said she was scared of him and gets stomach aches when she goes to the nursing home. I understand her feelings, but I don’t think she shouldn’t ever visit him, even if it’s hard. What do you suggest?
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One of the important things parents teach kids is that you don’t abandon people you love just because they fall ill. Accordingly, you could require your kids to spend at least some time with their grandfather.
However, when a child is stressed to the point of physical symptoms, it’s time to find another way to teach values. Your kids are seeing you take care of your father, and I think it’s OK to let that set the example. Admit to them that you’re torn but say they’re excused from the visits, at least until they feel emotionally strong enough to handle them.
Remember, you find these visits difficult and you’re the grown-up whom this man raised. Imagine his effects on a child, with a child’s not-yet-fully-developed coping resources. And without the loving history.
Re: Nursing home: Explain in a general (i.e., not scary) way that this illness has turned him loud and angry but that it is not his fault — he still loves them deep down. And tell them about the man he was before the illness — who he really is but who is being hidden by his illness.
Then tell them that because of this, you won’t make them visit him in person, but instead encourage them to write him letters or draw him pictures for his room so they still have a connection but aren’t being overexposed to the scary side. As they get older, you can explain the disease, and they will feel better knowing they didn’t completely forget about him and their letters/drawings were with him.
Such a great idea, thank you.
Re: Visits: I do a lot of volunteer work. One of my volunteer gigs is visiting as the human half of a therapy dog team at an Alzheimer’s ward. The families are often the most enthusiastic about our dogs, as it is a welcome relief for them during the stress of visiting someone who quite possibly does not want to be there, no matter how much they need to be.
Don’t force children to visit; it’s not kind nor constructive. Have them instead make cards or posters to send in. My “regulars” who still have some memory love telling me stories about the cards and art, and the others appreciate compliments on their gifts.
What a good human you are, thank you.
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