When a Dementia Diagnosis is a Gift

We celebrated my father’s 87th birthday a couple of weeks ago. Last week during a routine check-up, his doctor told he and my mother that he is in the early stages of dementia. 

I wasn’t surprised to hear this as I’ve seen signs of memory issues coming for some time. He’s asked me the same question or shared the same story repeatedly in a single phone conversation. I’ve experience my father struggling to remember something familiar while in the midst of speaking. Sometimes what feels like an unrelated comment will come out of nowhere. I’ve heard him confusing the details of an event, like reporting that a telephone appointment was a live meeting. My mother has shared that he’s recently asked her if she was 40 years old, and if she knew that he has a son. 

When I first talked to my father about his diagnosis, he told me that he knew this had been progressing for a while. I felt exuberant that he could speak so coherently about the issue. He never said anything to any of us in the family, and yet he was totally accepting of the news when it came. He told me on the phone that night they got the news, “It is what it is. I can’t change it. I’ve lived a good life. I’ve had a good wife. I have good kids. What more can I want?” 

A Heart-Warming Evolution 

Over the past year I’ve seen signs that my father is sensing the end of his life. Every phone conversation or visit has blessed me with at least one, usually more, verbal expressions of his love. Occasionally he’ll break down in tears while telling me he loves me. “You’re in my heart”, he has said to me, his only daughter.  

It has been heart-warming to experience my father evolving emotionally over the decades. Having lost his mother at age 12 and equipped with less than a high school education, he immigrated to the United States from the island of Malta with two of his brothers at age 17. He landed in San Francisco living two houses away from the woman who would become my mother. He married her at age 22 and spent his career working as a longshoreman on the waterfront. My older brother was born a year later and I followed the next year.  

Back in that day fatherhood was viewed very differently. My father was the breadwinner and my mother took care of the household. Although I always felt a bond with my dad due to the unique relationship we shared as father and daughter, I can’t say I was close with him. When I got into my teens, I would hold my breath when my friends were in our home, hoping my dad would not embarrass me with the profanity he regularly indulged in. As we both grew older, I began to see a softer side of him, particularly after he retired. I sensed that as he moved away from the guys on the docks, he felt freer to communicate from the heart and his language of the past was cast aside. 

The Gift in the Diagnosis 

After my mom called to tell me about the diagnosis, my husband Dean remarked that I was taking the news very well. I told him that I had seen it coming and that it was no surprise. It was actually a relief to me that my father’s condition had been defined. First, it’s now at the top of his medical records and he is undergoing treatment in an effort to slow the progression of the disease. We now have clarity on why he says some of the things he says, or why he sometimes shows up in uncharacteristic behavior. I’ve let go of my impulse to correct the facts. Yet most of all, those of us who love him can prepare to make the most of our time with him and be as ready as possible for what will lie ahead. 

If you have any personal experience with loved ones with dementia, I would love to hear any insights you’d like to share.