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Commentary: Alzheimer's And Family Over The Holidays

The holiday season offers a chance for families to visit and share memories. But when a relative has Alzheimer’s, visits can be painful, as OPB commentator Bob Balmer explains.

“Do you know who I am?” I ask.

Without a blink of his shiny, blue eyes he says, “No.” But he’s smiling.

“I’m your son,” I reply.

“Is that so?” he says with enthusiasm. Then we shake hands, and he says “That’s right. You’re a good kid.”

His response does not surprise me. He was always a great salesman. But seeing him always leaves me wondering: Why do I want to visit someone who does not even know who I am? It does not do him any good. It does not do me any good. These thoughts hound me on those days I’d prefer to clean the basement, wash the car or pick up the dog poop—anything besides visit a father who no longer knows who I am.

However, I now realize that I am wrong about it not doing my father any good. A staff member at my father’s facility said that even when an Alzheimer’s patient may not know his visitor’s name, personal attention from anyone does the patient some good. As my wife, who has read up on Alzheimer’s, explained: “It is called the halo effect. Hours later the person with Alzheimer’s may not remember who visited, but he enjoyed the visit while it was happening and the good feelings stayed with him for a while.”

Actually, the visits to my father do me good, too. A nasty but effective trio of guilt, obligation and desire fuel me to my father’s room. Guilt is what I’d feel if I didn’t visit my father. Obligation—the notion that families are there for one another, even when it’s not fun—drives me, too. Finally, my desire comes from wanting to repay my father for all that he once did for me.

When I was a child, my father attended all my baseball and basketball games. He built a basketball court for my brother and me. Once when the snow was so deep I couldn’t finish my paper route, he found me and helped finish the job. I remember his voice cutting through the December dark. He yelled, Bob, Bob, Bob. He was there for me.

Today it’s a different darkness that envelops him. I won’t be able to deliver him from it as he did me on that paper route, but I can be there. Because even if he doesn’t know who I am, I remember who he was.

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