Dad Has Dementia

Week 13: To Remember Is to Understand

Last updated: Apr 09, 2010


A couple of weeks ago, my brother came to visit from out of state. Dad delighted in visiting with his only son, and we all were glad this could happen while Dad still remembers who Jerry is. One evening, Jerry suggested we all have dinner at a new Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood.

I don't usually eat the requisite fortune cookie, but we were having a great time, so I played along. I was stunned when I read the message printed on the little slip of paper: "To remember is to understand." I thought, surely this was written by a dementia caregiver.

I knew before my dad moved in that dementia was a disease of forgetfulness. But I didn't realize that as memory goes, so does the ability to reason. I'm seeing this more and more with Dad.

Take, for example, his oxygen setup.

Dad has a home oxygen concentrator. During the day, he wears a regular nasal cannula. At night, however, the oxygen hose needs to be connected to his CPAP device in order to ensure he maintains adequate oxygenation while he sleeps.

Years ago, when he was still living at home, we rigged up two separate 50-foot oxygen hoses to deal with this issue. We strung one hose through eye bolts in the ceiling and connected it to the CPAP in Dad's bedroom. The other hose was connected to the cannula. He simply switched hoses at the oxygen concentrator based on whether he was using the CPAP or the cannula.

When he came to live with us, we set up the oxygen system the same way. Dad would wake up in the morning, go directly to the concentrator, unhook the CPAP hose from the machine, and plug in the hose with his nasal cannula. Very simple.

But shortly before Jerry came to visit, Dad called me at work one morning in a panic. "I just can't figure out how these oxygen hoses work," he kept saying. "It doesn't make sense to me." Luckily, Lee was able to leave work, race home, and get the hoses switched from CPAP to cannula.

Later that evening, Dad again had trouble with his oxygen lines. I felt helpless as I watched him trace the lines again and again, while shaking his head and saying, "I don't understand. I just don't understand." I explained the setup in the simplest terms I could, but Dad just couldn't make sense of it. And his inability to make sense of it caused him a great deal of anguish. He actually started to cry. It was heartbreaking.

So when I read the fortune cookie that night, I heard the echo of Dad's words: "I don't understand. I just don't understand." And I thought dementia is the worst fortune a person could ever get.