Dear Family Advisor

Should I tell my father that Mom is dying?

Last updated:

June 14, 2011

My father has Alzheimer's. He still recognizes family members, but his short-term memory is all but gone.

Mom is dying of cancer and is in hospice. All Dad can remember is that she's in the hospital, but he can't remember why. I stopped taking him to see her because all it did was get them both agitated. He couldn't remember what was going on, and she just wants him to take her home.

She'll pass soon. Should we tell Dad? I say no, but others in the family want to tell him and take him to the funeral.

Your dad may find out from you or from someone else, or figure it out on his own, or keep asking -- all or some of that might happen. You may not be able to control what unfolds. Let go of that part of this situation. If he finds out and gets upset, know that that's totally normal. Know also that he might not feel it for long, because memory loss also affects our ability to hold our emotions -- so he may simply forget again. If he's grieving or agitated, comfort him. If he needs medication because it gets really bad, then be ready to get that for him.

As for your family, try not to make this an issue between you and them. It's not wrong for them to feel that he has the right to know. He does have the right to know -- but if you or others choose not to tell him, then be at peace with that also. Many people choose not to tell family members who have Alzheimer's, and many of them choose not to bring that person to the funeral. People with memory loss are difficult to comfort, and we don't want them to suffer. There's also another fear, which people usually don't express: Their behavior at the funeral may upset others. Every family chooses to handle this differently, and there's no one right way.

Also know that, at times, a person with Alzheimer's can have a moment of amazing clarity. Don't be surprised if your parents have just a brief glimpse of who they were and are, and of the love between them.

It may be that you or your other siblings need to allow your parents to have the closure (or an attempt at it) that they deserve. It's not just for them -- it's for everyone. It doesn't have to be in person, if that just won't work. It could be a quiet moment when you talk with each of them about the situation, cry, and hold one another.

Meanwhile, take care of your own relationship with your mother. Visit her, talk to her, write her a letter. Grieve, mourn, cry, and laugh. Your dad may not be able to remember, but you can.

Bottom line: Just love everyone. Love your dad the best you can. Comfort him when he's scared and feels lost. Love your siblings, who are just trying to hang on to some semblance of normalcy when everything is overwhelming. Love yourself and be gentle regarding all the decisions you have to make. Be gentle with yourself because you're losing your mom -- and in many ways you're also losing your dad. Tempers may flare, and you or someone else may lose it or make a decision that others wouldn't, but try see the good in everyone.