Dementia

This Is Dementia

As Dad and my family struggle with the insidious disease, I’m grateful for the love and care he has received

By Ryan French

Dad told me he hated me last night. He flat out said it: “Do you think I’m stupid? I hate you.” We had just finished watching the Texas-Illinois basketball game when he turned to me and said, “I guess it’s time to go.” I tried to explain that there was nowhere to go; we were already at my parents’ home, the one he has lived in for almost 30 years. He was sitting in the plush, brown, but worn leather recliner he has sat in for the last 10 years. There was no convincing him. He was certain we were at the game, and he had no idea what a TV was. “How could we be home?” he said. “We were just at the game.” I tried my best to comprehend what he must have been feeling. Imagine not knowing what a TV is and having your son try to explain that he wasn’t at a game he had just watched. Now I was sitting across from him, trying to get him to understand we weren’t. I understood why, for that moment, he hated me. This is dementia

A couple of weeks ago, Dad was in one of the best moods I’ve seen him. He was chasing my son, Jackson, around. This was great to see because Jackson and our daughter, Annette, struggle significantly in their relationship with him. When Dad is at our house, he is often anxious or angry. Two hyper kids don’t help the situation, and some of his anger is directed at them. Grandpa is often the reason my wife, Steph, or I must leave to help Grandma again. Explaining to a 7- and 9-year-old that this isn’t really their grandfather often proves fruitless. They don’t remember the doting grandfather who drove monthly to Chicago to babysit, change diapers, hold them, read to them and love them unconditionally. It has been one of the hardest things we’ve experienced after moving home this summer.

Anyway, back to Dad playing with the kids. Dementia clouds what is appropriate and what isn’t. As Jack was climbing the stairs that day, Dad jumped out to scare him. Jack stumbled, then tumbled down 14 stairs, landing on the hard white tile at the bottom. He was fine, with a few scrapes and a couple of bruises, but it was nothing a candy bar couldn’t fix. Dad, on the other hand, was a mess. The roles of life, as they say, had reversed, Jackson trying to convince his grandpa that he was OK between bites of a Three Musketeers bar. (A funny aside: While Dad was crying, he brought Jack $2 as part of his apology. Dad has always been notoriously cheap, and Jackson turned to me and asked, “Can I even get a candy bar with this?” It made all of us smile.) The next day and a half were tough on everyone; my mom and Stephanie, Dad’s two primary caretakers, were always there to clean up the mess. Finally, he forgot about it. This is dementia. 

Deer season has always been a holiday in northern Michigan. The schools are closed on Nov. 15 each year for the opening day. My parents live on 100 acres of hunting land my grandfather left to them, so hunting has always been part of our life. I am not a big hunter (although I did shoot a 7-pointer this year with Jack), but it has always been a time for our family to be together (except for my sister, who often sends us pictures of Bambi on opening day). This year the day ended with my brother Scott and a family friend searching for Dad in the woods for almost an hour. He had gotten angry at my mother for some made-up reason that his brain had told him and walked out. This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. My mother had managed to get his tracker on him before he angrily walked out the door. The device tracks his whereabouts but has a safe area so as not to alert us whenever he goes outside. After following Dad’s tracks through the snow, my brother found him not far from the house. This is dementia. 

As I type this, I’m sitting in my parents’ living room. It is almost 11 a.m., and Dad is still sleeping. It took hours to persuade him to go to bed because he refused to believe he was in his own house. My mom had a cold and needed a night to rest, so she went with Stephanie to our house. Steph texted me and asked if I had checked to see if Dad was breathing. “I hope he isn’t,” I replied. And Dad would say the same if he could see himself now. He hated watching his parents and brother live with dementia. He vowed he would never live like that. Yes, my response to Steph was harsh, but I’m just being honest. This is dementia. 

I’m sharing all of this for many reasons. I’m writing to thank my wife and mother for caring for Dad. I am writing for the families who deal with this horrible disease daily. I am writing because I try my best to remember the good times and think about all the people who couldn’t do the things with their fathers that I did with mine. I am writing because I am angry at Dad for what he says to my kids and mother, even though I know he left us long ago. During the darkest times, as I try to comprehend why Dad and my family are being put through this, I wonder why assisted suicide isn’t legal. I truly believe that is what Dad would want. I share all this because you have all supported me for years, and I owe it to you, to be honest about what is happening in my life. This is my therapy. 

I want to close with a funny story because this is dementia too. A picture of Mark Baldwin and me from this year’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am resides by itself on a table in the TV room. Last night Dad asked who was in the picture with me, so I explained who Mark was. (Keep in mind that Mark had met Dad this summer during a visit to Alpena.) “Why the hell does he get center stage in this room?” Dad said. “I don’t even know who that is.” I laughed through the tears. 

I love you, Dad, and I’m sorry you have to endure this. 

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27 thoughts on “This Is Dementia”

  1. Great job sharing the ups and downs of dealing with a family member that has dementia. My Dad remembers me sometimes and other times he doesn’t have a clue but is happy to see me.

  2. There is a coterie of incredible writers making up the Fire Pit Collective, but none of them provide more poignant reminders of what’s really important in life than you, Mr. French. I was just thinking today about my old boss, who shortly after retiring was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The last few years were incredibly difficult, watching a man who was the most brilliant trial lawyer I had ever seen, deteriorate before my eyes. I hope your Dad’s difficult journey comes to a merciful end, and that the good times before that somehow outweigh the bad. Godspeed to you and especially to your Mom.

    1. Mark,

      Thank you for the kind message and for sharing about your boss. My dad was a CEO of very small company and was a proud man, its hard to see him like this. But it also makes me reflect on the good times, something I didn’t do enough while they were happening.

      Ryan

  3. My Mom has dementia. I took her out to lunch today. Try to take her to not too busy a place. But busy enough to keep her entertained. She good mad about the pictures on the wall kept changing. They were TVs. And she couldn’t quite grasp it. It was there, but not quite, so we just agreed the décor wasn’t the best.

    1. Ed,
      Im sorry you are going through this with your mother. I wish you both all the best. It’s hard on everyone as you know. Thank you for reading.

      Ryan

  4. I’m so sorry that you and your family are having to cope with your father’s decline — and try to keep love and his true self in mind.

    It’s not the notion of heroism that we grew up learning about. But what you’re doing now is heroic: protecting him and everyone else as much as possible. Please remember that you need to protect yourself as well. .

    1. Kerry,

      Thank you for the message and thank you for reading. My dad did many wonderful things for me, the least I can do is give a little of that back.

      Thanks again.

      Ryan

  5. Ah Ryan, it seems like only a few weeks ago that your Dad followed you round the Alpena Open, and even less time since he had a beer with you & the lads in the club (the time your mum gave him money for his round).
    I’m sorry to hear he’s gone downhill this quickly. 😢
    Thoughts are with you and your family, buddy.

  6. Many years ago I worked in a locked memory care unit to help put myself through pre-med. I used to wonder why so many families never or rarely visited their loved one with advanced dementia. I looked down on them. Over the years, I have come to understand. I commend your family for caring for your Dad like you do. Wishing you peace and strength this Christmas. -Ryan

  7. Hi Ryan.

    Bless you and your mom, wife and kids for helping your dad. This is a brutal disease that steals peoples dignity and voice, you are your dads voice through writing. Like others who commented, my father is declining with dementia and my mother is his sole full-time caretaker. I pray for them, and will for your family as well.

    Keep writing about your dad, it’s therapy for me as well. – Todd

    1. Todd

      First of all I’m sorry you are going thru this and wish your father and mother the best. I it’s so hard on everyone. I hope the following days can be as good as they can be. Thanks for the message, and you guys will be in our thoughts

  8. Ryan,

    Thanks for sharing so much in this story. As someone whose dad is nearly 80 and was diagnosed with dementia in the last 6 months, this is both helpful and hard to read. I found your writing through the game of golf, but here I am now thinking about life itself. Appreciate your work like this. All the best to you, your dad and mom, and your wife and kids.

    1. Chris,

      Thank you for your message and I’m so sorry to hear about your father. There will be tough days ahead, but those tough days have forced me to think more often of the good days. All the best to your family.

  9. Ryan,
    Thank you for all your writing. So often upon reading it I am moved to feel things, to smile, to laugh, or in this case to shed a tear. The honesty of your experience is powerful. Thank you for sharing your life and words with us. Your many fans appreciate it. All the best to you and your family.

    1. Aaron,

      Thank you so much for the message. I feel I owe the fans to share the tough times because I am so lucky to share the good times. I appreciate your support very much. Thank you again.

  10. Ryan, I feel your pain. My Mom had Dementia and passed early this year. There were days I wished she would pass peacefully to spare her and us of the pain. I was selfish in not visiting enough to spare my feelings. My Sister and Brother did awesome in helping my Dad with her. My sister found a nice home for Mom in which she did great there for a while but ultimately she got worse and worse. She did pass on February 23 2022. I hope you and your family can get some peace.

    1. Butch,

      I’m sorry for your loss. as you said it’s so hard on everyone. I used to feel guilty to hope that dad would pass, but I don’t anymore as I know he doesn’t want to live like that. I wish you and your family all the best. Thank you for the message.

  11. Ryan,

    Though the man your Dad was is gone for now – his experiences now and your ability to describe them I truly believe are helping loving families that are struggling with handling what life is throwing at them right now.

    So in an ironic but sad twist so to speak he and you are helping others of us.

    Life – a true life will have suffering – what you do facing it can change the world for the better.

    God Speed to all of you – because reading the letters back to you helps me see how special humanity can be when we care about each other and stop trying to impress each other.

    1. Terry,

      Thank you so much for the message.
      I appreciate so much everyone reaching out, it means the world. I feel I need to share the bad times too as I have a platform to share and we all go thru tough times. Thank you again for the message.

  12. What a poignant, powerful article. Thank you. We lived through my mom’s dementia from its earliest manifestations through its various phases until she passed away last March, two days shy of her 93rd birthday. I’ll share a humorous story because, as you say, this is dementia, too.

    The first time my mom didn’t recognize me was just about a year ago when I went over to the assisted living center where she lived for a short evening visit. She wondered why I was taking the time to visit her, told me i was a nice “young” man (69 and a half at the time!) to visit older folks like her and thanking me for taking the time to visit her, wondering where I lived, marveled at the fact that she’d been to my house – stuff like that.

    Eventually, I told her that I needed to head home and got up to leave. I said, “I love you, mom.” She arched her eyebrows and gave me a withering look that everyone who knew her knew only too well and said “I am not like THAT!” I smiled, gave her a hug, told her I knew she wasn’t and headed home with a smile in my heart.

    My wife and siblings treasured the moments like this when the “real” mom would still come out.

    Wishing you and your family blessings and fortitude as you walk this tough journey with your dad. As you can see from many other comments, you are not alone.

    1. Chris,

      I love that story, so great. Thank you for sharing and I am sorry that you had to go through it. I really appreciate you reading the article and taking time to send the message. Thank you again.

      Ryan

  13. Ryan,

    I’m sorry to hear about what you are going through with your dad, dementia is a terrible disease. My mom died of dementia just over one year ago and it was miserable. Have you researched music therapy at all? My mom was in a memory care facility and having music played made a world of difference for her mood. She couldn’t do anything on her own by the end so I completely understand about not wanting your father to have to continue living in the way he exists now. Also, make sure your mom has as much support as possible, whatever you can do or afford. My dad died suddenly about 4 years ago and my sisters and I quickly found out how difficult it is to care for someone with dementia on a daily basis, so we moved her into a nice facility. Fortunately my parents had good long term care insurance because it is quite expensive.

    I wish you the best and all the strength you will need as you go through this with your family.

  14. The fact that this is superbly written is really the least of its redeeming qualities. I have tremendous respect for the courage it takes to put these thoughts and feelings down in writing. That’s especialy true about your wishing the end comes soon for your proud father. If there is a more cruel disease than dementia, I’m unaware of it; at 74, it is my greatest fear. You’ve exprssed the reason for that fear perfectly in everything you’ve written about your father. Thank you for sharing your truth with us, Ryan.

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