Respect is always the first principle in any caregiving situation, whether you’re taking care of a toddler or an aging person. In the case of a father–son relationship, this respect has a special dimension: a recognition of how hard it is for a father to relinquish to his own child his role as guide and counselor. As his son, with empathy, approach problems with great tact, emphasizing when you can that you learned the skill you’re using from him.
Another way to treat your father with respect is to build on the relationship you have together as much as you can. Do you have old running jokes? Make frequent use of them both to lighten the mood when you’re both feeling discouraged and to subtly remind him of your love for him. Now more than ever is the time to refresh interests you shared when you were a child.
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, you might find that your father responds best to “cues and clues” rather than explicit direction. For example, if he is obviously searching for a word, try showing him you understand him by picking up the flow of the conversation instead of either waiting or supplying the word for him. Or if he seems disoriented with regard to time or place, instead of asking him directly if he knows where he is, or what time of year it is, give him a broad hint to pick up on (“It’s almost time for Christmas—remember how we used to always put up the lights together?” or “I’m glad we’re going to call Aunt Anne. We haven’t seen her in a long time.”).
The prospect of increasing dementia can be distressing and discouraging, especially when it seems to dislodge established dynamics in a relationship between a father and his son. But with a little creative love, you can find ways to build a refreshed relationship of respect and loving kindness that is not a substitute for the old relationship, but a new version of it.