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Commentary: Celebrate Father's Day with Dad, even if he may not recognize family

Carol Bradley Bursack, Forum columnist Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

Dear Carol: My father-in-law has late-stage Alzheimer's and he no longer knows the family. My husband's heart breaks when he sees his dad, and he doesn't want to spend his own Father's Day going through that pain. I think we should make the effort. Our kids from out of town will call, and our daughter and her family have invited us for an evening dinner. There's plenty of time to go to the nursing home to see Dad early in the afternoon. I think that I've talked my husband into going, but I'd like more insight. To me, it seems important that we visit even if I can't express why. Can you help? — SA

Dear SA: I'm sorry about your father-in-law's poor health and have deep empathy for you all. Deciding if or how to celebrate a special day with a parent or grandparent who seems unaware of what is happening can be a heartbreaking experience for the family. Your husband's feelings are natural, but you are absolutely correct. It's important that you both visit his dad and celebrate the day in any way that you can.

I've been in your situation, though my dad had a different type of dementia that was caused by a failed surgery. Dad recognized people, so that was a huge bonus, but most of the time he couldn't understand what was happening when we celebrated special days. Still, we did it. We included flowers, gifts and cards. On occasions when he was alert enough, I'd guide his hands as, together, we opened his cards and gifts. Were we simply going through the motions? Maybe. However, I believe that on some level Dad understood this day was for him.

Late-stage dementia of any kind can take away so much that people who live with it may seem to others like an empty shell, but we should never underestimate them. No one can truly know what your father-in-law understands and levels of clarity can vary from moment to moment. Even if his expression remains unchanged, he is still experiencing his life. Assume that he understands that you're there for him.

Bring flowers and a card so that the people who care for him during the day can comment. Read the card to him. Hold his hand. Play music that he enjoys. Just be there.

After most of our "celebrations," I would go home and cry for the loss of my dad as he was. Still, I never regretted any of the celebrating that our family did with Dad. Tell your husband for me that in the coming years he will be grateful that he took time on this day to celebrate the man who is his father. Tell him that you're sure his dad, on some level, knows that your husband is his son and that his son made this effort.

After seeing his dad, your husband can enjoy his own Father's Day, knowing that he did the right thing in honoring his own dad.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.

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