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A Phone for Dad: A very short tale of caregiver exhaustion and frustration

Trying to solve problems using non-dementia logic is frustrating, futile - and sometimes funny.

Photo of Mariah Burton Nelson

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This "three-minute fiction" was selected by NPR and read by Anne Patchett in 2010, before my father died from complications related to Alzheimer's. I didn't share it with him, but he enjoyed laughing at life's absurdities, so I like to think that in an earlier era, he would have found this amusing. I include it here as a way to say to caregivers: I hear you!

A Phone for Dad, NPR

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

How can we put aside logical and ordinary ways of understanding the world when caring for people with Alzheimer's? When we expect them to be as they were before - just minus the good memory - we often miss the mark.

Tell us about your work experience:

I'm in charge of innovation and planning for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. We use design thinking to solve problems for which there are no easy answers.

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Photo of Joy Johnston

Great story! I can relate to this as my parents were suspicious of technology. My mother didn't have dementia, but she was reluctant to use the Jitterbug phone I got her (which are designed with seniors in mind, called Great Call now.) Because of its simplicity, she was able to learn how to use it pretty easily and it became one of her beloved possessions.

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Photo of Mariah Burton Nelson

Hi Joy,

Well I'm glad SOMEONE was able to use those often-advertised "easy" phones! :-)

Yes that's the type I sought for Dad. Except... well, you know how well that worked.

The same was true for remote controls. My uncle said, "He needs a new one. I saw this easy one on TV..." Next thing I knew, we were tumbling down that rabbit hole too.

Life being what it is, my mom is 93 now, and after she complained incessantly about her very old iphone, we jumped through lots of hoops to buy HER a new, more modern iphone, and within a few days, she had forgotten all about that, and told me she needed a new phone. Yup. You've just got to laugh!

Thanks for appreciating my writing. Besides laughing, creative writing (and friends, and books, and online support groups) have been my salvation through 13-years-but-who's-counting? of eldercare. Meanwhile, I miss my father and dread my mother's death. Such is life.

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Photo of Joy Johnston

Ha, to be fair, I even have trouble with some of those TV remotes. You are so right, you have to find the humor in some of the absurdity that comes with caregiving.

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Photo of Mariah Burton Nelson

Hi Joy,

Yes, me too; must we really have three remotes?!?

Switching back now from humor to horror...

The fact that the caregiving generation is having some of the same struggles... (and BTW I know of 75-year-olds caring for their parents!)... presents yet another difficult aspect of caregiving.

When my parents have trouble with word recall, I think to myself, Gee, I'm experiencing some of that myself!

And of course we all forget things - but this DOES tend to happen to my generation (Boomers) increasingly.

So, in addition to (usually) having our parents' genes, it's easy to identify (and over-identify) with them. In the back of our minds, we're calculating: How many years before I am in this compromised (demented, vulnerable, confused) state myself?

It's horrifying to consider - and explains in part why so many shy away from parental care. They simply can't handle looking in a mirror that reflects their own possible/likely future.

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Photo of Joy Johnston

That is such a good point, caring for our parents is like a glimpse into the future and our own decline and mortality. My father had Alzheimer's and my mother had cancer, the two diseases I've always feared the most.

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