Updated: Nov 19, 2021
We expect our parents to decline. Most of us have seen or will see our own parents lose their parents, their friends, their siblings. It's just part of the cycle of life, and if we're surprised by it, then we haven't been paying attention. So when a parent gets dementia, it's not all that shocking. It can indeed be difficult -- as any caregiver can tell you -- and no child loves the day when their parent couldn't remember their name (or what I can now call "yesterday," when my dad whistled for me when he couldn't pull up my name on demand).
Yet it's clearly different when it happens to your partner.
My mom and dad started dating at the hormonal age of 15, when they were undoubtedly thinking of thousands of other things than what old age might look like. They married at 23, and I'd wager the house that they still weren't thinking of their octogenarian relationship. At that age, their parents were alive and well, and their siblings were working on families of their own. Most of their life was in front of them.
Maybe they began to think about it as their own parents aged, particularly my father, as both of his parents had dementia. But we humans can think we're invincible, and my father certainly believed that. He took great care of himself -- diet, exercise, weight-lifting cardio -- and even at 80, he could probably still kick your ass. (You think I'm kidding, but my 21 year-old son was convinced he could beat the old man arm wrestling this summer, and, well, it didn't go as well as he had hoped.) He probably thought his physical health would prevent his brain's demise.
But of course, he's as vulnerable as the rest of us, and now he battles his memory issues every day. He knows he has issues, but he does not like for you to point it out. So long as we all pretend everything is okay, he's a happy guy.
For his partner, however, that is excruciating. My mother can vacillate between anger and hurt, and she's probably visited every point between those emotions. While she can sometimes pretend all is well, this is her life partner, the same young teenager that taught her to drive, that built her a house, that would call her every day from his office when she was home with children to see if she needed anything on his way home, that would only abandon her over his dead body.
When he was still driving and would leave her at her hair appointment -- and then not be able to find her again -- she would be devastated that he could forget her. And it's true -- my father has devoted his life to taking care of his honey. The man with the healthy brain would never leave her stranded, and with more than 60 years together, that can feel like a slap in the face.
Of course it's not his fault, but that's so much easier for me to see, as he's my parent and not my partner. My father and I have never been peers, nor will we ever be. Even though he's always been my favorite person to split a pitcher of beer with, I was still his daughter. Even if he forgets that -- and it's clear that he will -- I will remember, and I have somehow expected this, or at least something that would end in loss for me.
But for her, it can be shocking that this happy, healthy, giving man might say the same thing twenty times at dinner, or put away dirty dishes, or ask her who the little girl is who's living in their basement, or where his car keys are, for the thousandth time this month.
I've talked to other friends about this too, and it seems to be a common occurrence. The life partner who doesn't have dementia can be mad-as-hell with the one who does. I recently read a memoir a friend recommended about a woman caring for her elderly parents -- one with dementia -- and that was the case for them, too. The elderly mother was angry with the husband with dementia, so much so that she didn't even want to have meals with him or share a room.
I write this not to pass judgment on those who are hurt and angry. Caring for someone with dementia is beastly, and it can rip your heart out. I judge them not for how they express that pain. It's not as bad for me, and yet trying to find patience with him when I have things to do can be exhausting. You can't judge me for that if you've never walked in my shoes, and I'm not judging the partners for how painful it must be for them.
I write this instead to the other family members -- the children, grandchildren, friends and family who are NOT the life partner. The life partner needs you, maybe even more than the person with dementia does. The person with dementia only needs to be kept calm and safe. The life partner will likely never feel calm and safe again.
My father is happy. My mother is heartbroken.
"New Years Dance, December 31, 1956." They would have been 16 in this photo.