My father-in-law passed away earlier this month. He was 91 and suffering from dementia, and when we saw him this past December, he was clearly in the end stages of the disease. He asked my 50-year-old husband (his son) where he went to school, and he gazed at my 16-year-old son (his grandchild) as if he were a stranger.
It was heartbreaking.
After we understood the situation we were facing, my husband and I switched gears.
“What did you do for a living when you were younger?” I asked.
Oh, the smile that appeared! My father-in-law could talk for hours about his “glory days,” working as an engineer on Long Island. Even in his state of advanced dementia (a mysterious illness indeed), he was able to recount names and events from his time as the head honcho at a utilities plant. Some 40-plus years had passed, and he told us a detailed account of firing one of his employees, and the aftermath of that decision.
My husband then asked his father if he had ever traveled abroad. Why, “Yes!” he answered. He had been to Japan! He and his wife had gone decades earlier, and they had met so many interesting people. The gardens were just beautiful and the food was nothing like they had tasted before.
We had heard these stories many times before, of course. He was 91 after all, and my father-in-law was a talker, but we felt such joy listening to him recite them again. Here he was – unaware of who we were or where he was. But he could tell us of the coworker who became a lifelong friend and of a meal he ate at a particular restaurant in Asia.
That talk was the last real conversation we had with him. Less than three months later he was gone.
What could have been a desperately sad visit that December—one filled with the painful realization that his time was coming to an end—instead became a precious opportunity to allow my father-in-law just a few minutes to soak in the life he had when life was good. When pride and joy, not sickness and confusion, were his companions.
While everything is still fairly fresh, I think that in the future, when I think back on my father-in-law, I will remember that December visit. And I will forever be thankful that my husband and I switched gears. That we gave him the chance to feel content.
I am by no means an expert on working with people with memory issues. But my father-in-law taught me a lot that day. Maybe you can take something from our experience too.
Goodbye dear father-in-law. And thank you.