The Upside

While dementia can be beastly for caregivers, it has an upside, a silver lining that can be a stunning gift: they don't remember.

Obvious, right? It's what makes dementia such a beast. But it can be just as much a benefit.

Take the worst day yet for me in dementia caregiving.

I was working from home in mid-December, preparing for an 11 am virtual meeting that I was leading, making notes of all that I wanted to cover.

I hadn't locked the door (fail!) so in walks my dad at 10:40 am with something important to tell me. I know if I ask him to leave, he will get angry as he's done many times before, screaming that it's his house.

So I take a different approach to try to keep him calm and happy. I get up from my chair and walk to the door to meet him. With as much patience and kindness as I can muster, I start to redirect him out of the room. This approach spectacularly fails, and he explodes. Unfortunately, because I am now standing beside him, he doesn't just scream and slam the door, as he has been inclined to do so many times before.

This time, he hits me. Twice. The first time more like a shove, and the second time more like a smack. But he wasn't done. He had his elbow up, his hand in a fist, and was starting to swing for my face when my mother dragged him out of the room by his raised elbow.

While this would have made it the worst day so far all by itself, it's worse than that. Sometime after the first hit and before my mother could get him out of the room, my protective and scrappy rescue dog (this guy I've written about before: took a chunk from my dad's leg.

My father was furious (and bleeding profusely, as he's on blood thinners), yelling that he would kill that dog. No, no you won't, I say. That dog is protecting me exactly as you would want him to do.

I shut my dog in the room where I was working and help my mom attend to the bleeding leg. By the time he sits down - still mad about the dog - he's already forgotten that he hit me, and sees the dog bite as unprovoked.

My mother and I get the wound cleaned and bandaged, and I get the dogs and my laptop and shut myself in my bedroom. I try to to get myself together for the meeting which now starts in ten minutes, because something has broken in me, and I can't stop crying (something I rarely do).

I somehow managed to make it through the meeting and texted my boss to request the rest of the day off. By the time I went to check on my dad, he had forgotten everything.

Of course I hadn't forgotten, and spent the rest of the day figuring out what to do. A visit with the veterinarian was the most helpful. He shared his own experience with dementia and violence, and told me to get prepared for much worse. Now knowing how my dog would react to anyone abusing me was helpful, he said, because it was no longer an unknown. But it made it even more important to have a plan for preventing and reacting to that violence in order to protect everyone involved, he said, including the dog.

For me, it was both a sobering and heartbreaking day, the kind of day that people tried to warn me about. The kind that would likely change me forever. While I had anticipated many challenges, physical abuse was not one of them, even though dementia resources are full of references and to it and potential solutions. But my father had never been abusive to me or my mother, and maybe I naively thought this would stay true as his brain deteriorated.

Regardless of the kind of day it was for me, it wasn't at all a terrible day for my dad. He was back to his normal happy self, completely unmoved by the drama of the day. He would never hit me. He doesn't know what happened to his leg or why he needs preventative antibiotics. He enjoys the dogs and plays with them every day, and he's constantly telling me how good they are. He even mentions how the one is so protective: "Nobody better think of messing with you with this guy around."

Indeed, I think to myself.

In my protector dog's defense, he doesn't seem to hold a grudge either. I suspected he would be more cautious and watchful with my dad around, but he has not been. For him, it seems that day was transactional: mess with my person, and I will bite you. I've also started to notice that my dog may seem to be more aware of my father's moods than I am, meaning that he might even be an asset in helping us prevent and respond to those explosive moods.

Of course my dad's forgetting what happened puts the burden of responsibility back to my mom and me, as we (hopefully) continue to identify those moments and improve de-escalation techniques to prevent them from happening. Yet while he has so far only threatened violence with her, we need a plan for if and when he is physically abusive to her, which we are currently discussing.

But his forgetting is also a spectacular gift. Each day is brand new. A chance to do it better, to play with dogs, to enjoy the day, to not hold anger or resentments. Past grievances are irrelevant today. We have complete freedom to try again, a clean slate to write a different story than the one I've written about here.

Life generally isn't like that. We have to atone, make amends, overcome events like this. But not with dementia. It lets you start over every few minutes, no harm no foul.

Exasperating at times, yes. But also beautiful and full of possibility.

Weeks later: my protector - with eyes on me - getting a bootie scratch from my father

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