Playing Along With My Dad’s Alzheimer’s Confusion

I wanted to make him comfortable in the best way I knew how

Photo: Robert Nicholas/OJO Images/Getty Images

So what if he thought the hospital was a hotel?

I traveled with my parents as both a child and a teenager, the three of us soaking up the sun and sand, enjoying good art and great food. We discovered ancient history and recent culture, and I skipped school to study life. Mom always found interesting places to shop, eat, stroll, and linger. Dad knew where to find history, meet locals, and to slip off our tourist shrouds.

Before embarking on any journey, we’d plan where we’d go and what we’d see. Once back home, we’d critique the trip, rate the sights we’d seen, and catalog our experiences. If anything had somehow disappointed us, it was eventually laughed away to avoid ruining our memories of the experience. Talking about our trips together allowed us, two older-than-average parents and their youngest child, to form a shared lexicon, marking our history and detailing our wanderings.

My parents continued to travel long after I married and moved away. The postcards that marked their journeys were all displayed on my refrigerator, where I’d point out the shiny buildings, glorious mountains, and beaches they’d visited to my two growing boys.

The trip to Hawaii with a couple of their closest friends was my Dad’s last adventure. Everyone knew by then or at least suspected without ever saying it out loud, that Dad, at 78, was most likely in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Despite this realization, the report about Dad’s behavior in Hawaii still startled me: Leaving the hotel lobby scared him; he refused to sample the local foods; getting around the island flummoxed him. The most shocking part of all, however, was that during the trip, all Dad wanted was to go back home. This final, sad fact — a father I couldn’t even recognize, who had lost his spark to explore the world — told everything, far more than the eventual doctor visits.

But mostly for all of us, denial ruled our days. Months went by, until a year had passed.

However once the official diagnosis arrived, Mom, my two siblings, and I kept skirting the issue. Yes, his mind is failing, we all silently acknowledged, but other than putting him on some medication, there didn’t seem to be much more we could do. Mom took over driving. My brother, who lived about a half-mile away, assumed property and checkbook duties. My sister and I, both more than 2500 miles across the country, worried from afar, and tried to chat with Dad by telephone about things that didn’t tax his memory. But mostly for all of us, denial ruled our days. Months went by, until a year had passed.

Eventually, Dad landed in the hospital with a broken hip, a mild stroke, and a constellation of complications borne from decades of smoking, lifelong gastrointestinal problems, and vitamin deficiencies. I flew right away to Nevada from my home in New Jersey, heading straight from airport to hospital, not knowing what — or who — I’d find when I got there.

What I found upon my arrival was a man who both was and was not my father, and someone who wanted me, someone he seemed to only dimly recognize, to know a few things. One was that he didn’t care for this hotel, not one bit. The first priority, he explained, was to get an outside phone line so he could book a different hotel and “get the hell out of this dump.” He also informed me that the room service food “stinks to high heaven.” Finally, he needed me to know that he was out of cash and mortified that he could not tip the bellman (the orderly who took him for X-rays), the maids (the nurses who kept him tidy), the room service waiter (the aides who delivered his meals), or housekeeping (the aides who brought him extra blankets).

I’m not sure why or how, but I immediately knew that it was my job to just play along.

Deep down I suppose I sensed there was no value in explaining to him that this was not a hotel, especially because hotels, after all, were places that had always meant refuge and pleasure; places he’d felt comfortable. Hotels were where he’d always been fit enough to swim and smart enough to play baccarat. They were places of beauty, indulgence, and order. I knew in my heart that it was not my duty to make him understand — as if I could — that this was a hospital, that he was broken and sick, and that the only “activities” here were uncomfortable and undignified. What good would it do, I reasoned, to replace his imagined “lousy hotel” conversation with one that was more realistic?

So, I decided it would be best to play along.

I told Dad that he could switch hotels later, but first we should have lunch, and dove into the “room service” tray with him, gulping down the watery pudding we dubbed “chocolate mousse.” Yes, I agreed with him, the service here wasn’t the five-star standard he normally preferred, but look at that view! Luckily for us, the Black Mountains beyond Las Vegas formed a conveniently dramatic backdrop to his fourth-floor room. “Mom is at the beauty shop in the lobby,” I told him, “so we can’t leave just yet.” Then I slipped some singles into his bedside table “for tips” and watched relief flood into his gaunt features.

That first day alone with him, and every day thereafter, I acted strictly from gut instinct.

All afternoon, and for the rest of that week, I listened and sympathized with the man who had once so energetically traversed European cities, my hand in his, exploring them with confidence. As I listened, he’d alternately threaten to check out, call the concierge to complain, or to cancel the rest of the trip. Other times, he’d ask about “Papa,” his own father, who had been dead for 26 years, and if his employees were handling everything at his “shop,” the textile business he’d closed before retiring two decades ago. I nodded, smiled, and assured him that all was well, because well, wasn’t it?

I was nowhere near being a hero that week. Not even close. That first day alone with him, and every day thereafter, I acted strictly from gut instinct. When my mother and brother visited, they took the other approach, explaining where he really was, what year it really was, and that his own father had died so long ago. I sat by quietly, understanding that each family member needed to do whatever brought them the most hope, and swallowed my urge to shush and encourage them to play along with his new reality.

Personally though, to have hope was about finding a moment — many moments as it turned out — when Dad and I could meet each other on mutually comforting, historically familiar ground. Every time he talked about hotels, I remembered all the lovely days we’d spent in suites and lobbies, at poolside or white-tablecloth restaurants, from Vienna to the Virgin Islands. When he talked of booking a flight or hiring a limo, it busted open the shared vault of family history we’d made together wandering the world. If that past world of ours could serve as a salve for him, in the midst of his psychic turmoil and physical pain, I was more than willing to follow. It was only after he passed away three months later when I finally understood that, even there in that hospital room, we were still traveling together.

Author of the memoir, Starting with Goodbye (Univ. Nevada Press, 2018) . Professor, Bay Path MFA. Freelance writer. Editor. Writing coach.

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