Friday, November 9, 2012

A Challenging Time with Ojiichan

My dad stayed with us last week. It was a long week.

My dad really enjoys visiting us. He loves Kai and my wife.

Kai likes it whenever we have visitors. A new person to play is always a good thing in his mind. And I think he senses the love his family has for him whenever one of his grandparents is here.

There were many opportunities for grandfather and grandson to interact.

On the positive side, I was so happy that they each made numerous attempts to engage each other.

I don’t recall my dad ever sitting on the floor and playing with my sister or me when we were little kids. And he was not exactly the playful grandfather to my nephews when they were small either. With Kai, while he wasn’t constantly playing with him, he did play Wii with us every night, and try to talk to Kai numerous times.

And that is where we had some challenges.

It is often hard for us to get Kai to engage in a conversation with us. He doesn’t like to answer our questions. He only wants to talk about the things that interest him, not the things that interest us. He does not look at us when he talks.

Sometimes Kai will respond if you wait him out. Sometimes he will talk if you keep encouraging him. Talking to him requires patience.

Unfortunately, my dad does not have much patience.

My wife and I could easily sense my dad’s impatience whenever Kai did not respond to him. The irritation showed in his face. But sometimes it also came out in his words.

“Is your name Kai?”

Kai would usually respond that it was. And that would prompt my dad to go on.

“Then why don’t you answer me when I talk to you? Don’t you hear me? Boy oh boy!”

After one of the first times this happened, I spoke to my dad and reminded him that Kai has autism, and as a result, communicating with other people is one of his major challenges. I told him that he needs to be patient, and it is better to be more encouraging than to get angry.

My dad did not seem to feel that there was anything wrong with how he talked to his grandson. I don’t think he really grasped what I was trying to tell him. But when my wife said the same thing to him, he apologized and said he would not do it again.

Of course, that was not the case.

With my dad’s Alzheimer’s, he likely forgot our conversation before the evening was over. And so the next day and the each day for the rest of the week, he often had the same remarks for Kai.

Rather than have the same discussion with my dad each day, my wife and I tried to prompt Kai to respond to my dad more quickly. But it was not always easy. When Kai is watching a video or studying his Lego catalog, it is hard to get his attention. And so we saw several more occasions where my dad got impatient with Kai.

Remarkably, Kai did not seem to get upset with my dad’s badgering. He still wanted to play with Ojiichan.

The irony of it is that Kai had ample opportunity to get as frustrated with my dad as he was with Kai. My dad is very hard of hearing. There were plenty of times when Kai said something to him and my dad did not respond because he did not realize that Kai was talking to him. When we could, my wife and I asked Kai to repeat what he said and to speak louder. We got my dad’s attention and let him know that Kai was trying to talk to him.

On those occasions, Kai never seemed to get impatient. He always nicely repeated what he said.

By the end of the week, I was exhausted. And I was only with my dad during the evenings. My wife was even more worn out. She was a saint for spending the whole week with my dad, listening repeatedly to his same old stories, while I was at work.

But my dad enjoyed his visit immensely. He kept telling me how much he enjoyed my wife’s hospitality and home cooking, and how much Kai had grown and changed.

I don’t think he really remembered many details, but the good feelings stayed with him.

With holidays coming up, we will be spending a lot more time together. I will have to keep in mind that as much as I preach to my dad that he needs to be patient with a boy who has autism, I need to be patient with an old man who has Alzheimer’s.

In that way, I can take a lesson from my son.


  1. I understand exactly where you are now. For the last few years of my father's life, he had very little control of his emotions, and his cognition was inconsistent and fleeting. I had talked to my son about my father's condition ahead of time so he would know what to expect. I knew my father had very little control. My son understood what was happening, although I am sure he hadn't understood exactly why. He just knew that my father got mad easily, and sometimes, didn't talk or act rationally, and that it was a medical condition.

    My son felt sorry for his grandfather and tried to comfort him. I would also try to redirect my father's mind to focus on simple actions instead of anything involving complex thought (in the final months).

    Had my son not understood (he thankfully did), my next step was to show my son TV movies and shows depicting advanced stages of dementia...and the appropriate responses from family members.

    I did, however, shield my family from exposure to my father's condition near the end. My mother, my sisters, and I, took on the final responsibilities without other family members being near...mostly to guard my father's dignity, as he still had moments of lucidity where he would have felt embarrassed if his grandchildren were there.

    1. Shiroi, that is interesting that you spoke to your son ahead of time, and that he was so understanding. Until recently, I would not have thought that Kai was ready to learn about such things, but he seems to understand more complex issues these days, so perhaps it is time that I talked to him like you did with your son.

      You obviously have a full appreciation for what we are going through. Thank you for sharing your experience.


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