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Hello Patriarchy

A common story among the families of older, white dementia sufferers is how their beloved parent/grandparent became racist as their dementia worsened. It's often shocking to the family -- they've never witnessed this behavior before -- and they find themselves apologizing for the behavior and figuring out what to do about it.

While this reality sucks for every healthcare worker of color who has to take the abuse, it makes sense for what happens in dementia. Dementia sufferers go backwards, un-remembering all they have learned and experienced and going back to some primal place. The world 80+ years ago was a very different one than it is today, and the dementia demonstrates that, often in unpleasant ways.

At our house, we don't have to deal with any racism, as my father is just as loving and kind to people who don't look like him, a great tribute to my deeply religious grandparents who believed -- and practiced -- that God's people were all people, not just the ones who looked like them, spoke the same language, went to the same church, whatever.

But wow, the chauvinism has been shocking. I knew from stories that my father told about his parents that my grandmother served my grandfather, literally. That didn't happen at my house growing up, however. My mother and father were partners in all things, and my father was as much a feminist as my mother was.

My mother had her own career but mostly did the traditional roles for women, cooking, cleaning, managing the finances. My dad had a career too, and managed household repairs and updates, took care of the vehicles, and he and his brothers built the house we moved to when I was nine. But he crossed traditional gender lines by also cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and his favorite --caring for and playing with children.

He actively took a role in teaching my sister and I how to do basic repairs and maintenance too, including washing and filling up the car, changing the oil, and changing a flat tire. Whether we chose traditional or non-traditional roles for ourselves was not his concern. But he wanted us to know we had in us the ability to do whatever we needed. He wanted us to find our life path on our own terms, whatever those may be.

Once when I was living in an apartment on the East Coast, I had asked a boyfriend to help me with a repair. "Do you have a toolbox?" he asked. I brought him the hard plastic light blue case and popped it open to display an assortment of tools with matching light blue handles.

He had a strange look on his face, so I said, "What?"

He smirked and said, "This looks like the kind of toolbox a dad would buy for his daughter when she was leaving home."

"Huh, weird," I responded. "My dad gave it to me when I moved away."

I was surprised when leaving home to learn that not all men saw women as my father did, which would result in painful lessons both personally and professionally. What I didn't expect to ever find was those chauvinistic attitudes from my own father.

Yet here is dementia, and with it comes some learned behavior that he must have experienced as a child, where his father must have ruled the house and his mother served at his command. Am I somehow living with my deceased grandfather? I often find myself wondering.

Adapting to this new patriarchy is not exactly easy for me. I don't remember ever obeying. Even in my earliest memories the narrative in my own head -- before I started saying it out loud -- was thinking how ridiculous, arbitrary, or illogical rules were. By the time I was a teenager, I remember one blistering fight where my parents had forbid me to do something, but I had later decided to do it anyway. So I asked them what they preferred: my lying to them about it, or them just letting me do it openly. (You're probably feeling sorry for my parents right about now, but did you seriously think the bad daughter blog was about a good daughter? That's on you.)

I do what I want. I don't obey the patriarchy. The man? Please. When my former husband and I were working on our wedding vows based on the traditional ones, he said it first that "obey" would have to be taken out. Not only did he not believe I was physically capable of saying the word, but he also wasn't sure that he could stop himself from laughing if I did manage to spit it out.

Yet this man in the house expects me to obey him. He does not appreciate being talked back to, and it is HIS. HOUSE. Always, his house. It's the thing that he falls back on every single day: "This is my house!" Arguing with him is the worst thing I can do, as nothing fires him up more than, "It's my house too," so I'm trying to bite my tongue, smile, nod. "Yes, your house." Lock me out, go through my room, steal my stuff, feed my dogs junk food, drink all the coffee, open the packages, purposely rile up the dogs while I'm trying to do a work videoconference: It's all about the man who thinks he's in charge, to hell with the one paying the mortgage.

When I took my mother out to dinner for her birthday, he grabbed the check before I could. I asked him to give it to me, but no, he was not having it. He was paying the check. I explained to him, no, it's your honey's birthday, so dinner's on me. He said, "I can take her out to dinner too." And I tried to explain to him that she pays the bills, so if he used the credit card, it would be her paying the credit card bill, which wouldn't be okay that she bought her own birthday dinner.

That logic didn't work for him (she pays the bills but it's HIS MONEY!) so I tried other ways. "I'm the only one with a job," I said. "I'm the only one with any money," he countered. To our credit, my mother and I just looked at each other but didn't say a word to argue with him. He doesn't know that he's the only one who doesn't have any money, whose care and livelihood is completely in the hands of the women who love and adore him, even during this super annoying chauvinistic phase that neither one of us ever guessed was coming.

Maybe it's easier for the patriarchy to just believe it's in charge. Smile. Nod. And then do whatever you want.

I paid the check.

Photo from a lake vacation where the boat captain tends to the youngest, his great niece.

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