Technology, Thy Fault is Yours

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Technology has a complicated relationship with dementia.

Technology first indicated for me that my father was slipping. About ten years ago, he'd started showing some hints of some complicated behaviors: forgetful, anger, confusion. We all knew something was wrong. But about five years ago I realized with a shock that he had stopped texting me.

He had owned and operated a cellphone since sometime in the early 2000s. He knew that I was far more responsive via text than I ever am via phone (still true), so he would regularly send me text messages, just thinking about you, or don't forget to get your oil changed, or I'm making pancakes for breakfast if you want to join us, or if you need me to pick your son up from school, let me know. It was common and frequent.

But then he'd get frustrated that there was something wrong with his phone or he just couldn't figure it out. Often he would blame the new phone or the new messaging app or the new keyboard design or whatever it was. It was definitely the phone's fault, and not his.

Because the new technology frustrated him, my mom just got him the "flip phone," one of those early models that was just for calls and text and had no internet capability. He was able to use the flip phone, though the texting gradually ceased. Instead, he would now call me at least weekly, if not more. I keep my ringer on silent, so I often missed his calls, but he would leave voicemail messages. The further into his dementia, the longer and more rambling the voicemail message. I know this, because I have at least five of them saved on my phone (more on that later).

While he could still use it, the flip phone had some advantages. For one, we could call him, and he would answer. Well, mostly he would answer, if he wasn't mad about something. Even if he was angry and drove off somewhere, I could trick him by using a friend's phone to call him, and he might still pick up if he didn't recognize the number. But when he was really mad -- or really lost -- and wouldn't pick up the phone, we could still track it using my mom's account.

With increasing frequency, he would forget to carry his phone with him. So even if he got lost -- or we lost him -- we had no way of knowing where he was. For awhile, we tried various tracking technologies. But we'd have to put it in a watch, or a jacket, or shoes. And inevitably, he would quit wearing the watch, or the the jacket, or that particular pair of shoes.

We eventually put a tracking device in the car, one that he didn't know about. That worked for awhile. So long as it stayed charged, we could tell where he was when he took off with the car and then got lost.

Unless he took the other car. That happened too, until we sold the other car to my son. Then one tracking device; one car. Until the day came when he lost consciousness, fell off a sidewalk into the street, and broke his cheekbone. From then on, no more driving. For the most part. Some exceptions have been made personally by his wife, but I will not argue with her here, as we do enough of that in real time.

The security system has been another complicated issue. In their last home, my parents had a security system in place, and they used it frequently. But as my dad's dementia worsened, the system could fail. Whether my dad couldn't remember the disarm code, or he didn't remember to shut the door in the time the alarm allowed, or whatever other precautions were in place to ensure the viability of the system, the security company called frequently, and sometimes the sheriff visited.

When we moved to the new house, my mom and I decided we'd put the security system in here as well. I got an app on my phone so I could control things remotely too, since we knew the dementia would play a role.

The first night we had the system in place, we knew we had made a mistake. I would arm the system before bed, and then my dad would go around and unlock, open, shut, and lock every door in the house, setting the alarm off. I would reset it, and then five minutes later, he would go around and unlock, open, shut, and lock every door in the house -- just checking them, he would say. He needed to make sure they were locked, he would say.

So we decided to use a different approach. The system is still in place, but now we hear an announcement, "Front door unlocked," when something has changed. That is a great feature, since he's a roamer, and we like to know when he's up and left the building (as happens frequently). However, for someone who works near the alarm announcer, it can be crazy-making to hear, "Front door unlocked. Front door opened. Front door shut. Front door locked," in a sequence about ten times per evening. Also? "Back door unlocked. Back door opened. Back door shut. Back door locked." And did I mention the garage door? Or the sliding glass door? Or the big garage door? Over. And over. And over. Again. Every day. Every night. Repeatedly.

While I was continuing to practice my patience and tolerance mantras, a new development happened. I had already gone to bed but was still awake and reading, but my father was upstairs -- as he does -- unlocking, opening, shutting, locking the house in all its various places. Then I got a medical alarm on my phone, so I went to check on them upstairs. I had indeed gotten them medical alarms, but I was pretty sure neither of them were using them, so I couldn't understand what was happening.

When I reached them, the fire department was here and talking to both my parents. The firefighters said they had gotten a medical emergency, but how did that happen? I asked them both, did you report something? No, they said. We found the medical alert transmitters, and neither of them had been used. We thanked the first responders and sent them away, and then I tried to figure out what had happened. Amazingly, the wall device records when an alarm is being reported, so I played the video. And there was my dad, standing in front of the security system, reporting a medical alert. Likely, he thought he was arming the system, something he hasn't done for the year since have lived here.

Small devices and appliances can be challenging too. My mom and I weren't happy with the existing dishwasher, so we bought a new one. It's fancy, very quiet; you can barely hear it running. Who knew what a problem that could be. Unless we stand right next to it in the kitchen and tell him not to open it, he'll open it during the dishwashing cycle and then wonder why the dishes aren't clean. One time it took us three attempts to get a single load of dishes washed.

He's constantly turning things off, like when I was baking something . He turned the oven off and the timer. How long before the timer was to go off? We'll never know. He changes the settings on the oven too, as I often find it on the Celsius setting, and no way is the clock correct.

The clock on the coffee maker is wrong too, as he unplugs it at least five days out of seven, so correcting it is pointless. Same with the microwave. In fact, I'm not sure there's a single correct time reading anywhere in the house, except for my mom's and my computers and phones, and maybe his watch?

When he gets frustrated, he gets forceful. This can be challenging for my mother and me, but it can also be challenging for the devices and appliances. His mind may be broken, but he's still as strong as ever.

In their master bathroom, they each have their own sink with a lighted mirror. Just touch a spot on the mirror, and it lights up. Except that my dad kept thinking the mirror was a medicine cabinet, so he pulled it out of the wall. A few times. And broke the light. My mom -- clearly an optimist -- bought a new one and then put post-it notes all over it to remind him that the mirror doesn't open. So far, so good.

He was struggling with the modern handle of the shower door, so he broke the door off the track so that it could no longer open. The handle on the front door is also broken, as is the handle to the door of the room where I work. He doesn't like it when I latch it so he can't get in the room, so he'd rather just break the door down. My bedroom door was off its track one day too, though I didn't see it happen, so I can't say for sure it was him. But it wasn't me, and it wasn't my mom, so...?

"It wasn't me," he'd tell you. He didn't break the shower either. Or the mirror. Or the doors. Or turn off the oven. Or unplug the appliances. Or set off the alarm.

Blame the technology.

These photos were both taken at 11:34 pm.

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