A laughing matter

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 61, No. 2, March 2019, Page 61 Editorials

“Do you have time to come in and say ‘hi’ to your sister?”

“I have a sister? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?”

This is a conservation I recently had with my father. He was referring to my mother, but his addled brain often mixes things up. You see, my father has Alzheimer disease. Over the last few years he has gradually deteriorated to the point where his cognitive issues are now obvious to everyone. However, I suspect this dementing process has been going on for much longer than we know. My father is outgoing and constantly joking, so he can make it seem like he knows someone without ever actually having to identify them. He still talks to everyone, and he’ll tell me that he used to play golf with complete strangers he meets at the store. These confabulations fit seamlessly into the day-to-day situations he is confronted with. (As an aside, I suspect that he has been making up his golf scores for years.) I’m not sure he is even aware of who I am at times. I still get glimpses of the man he used to be, and I am very thankful that his underlying personality hasn’t changed. He remains happy, pleasant, appreciative, and easygoing. So far he hasn’t demonstrated any significant irritability or agitation and is blissfully unconcerned about his declining mental functions.

If you asked friends and family to describe my father in one word, I’m pretty sure it would be jokester. My father would never turn down an opportunity to goof around, make someone laugh, or dress up in some funny—often inappropriate—costume. This is the man most likely to be found at the office in a gorilla suit, not necessarily on Halloween. I distinctly remember him coming to my parent-teacher interviews and drawing funny faces on the chalkboard. In old party photos he is often dressed up as a woman holding a liquor bottle, but that’s another story. My parents’ house was often adorned with singing Christmas trees, fish, dogs, etc. If my father knew he was going to get dementia, he would have probably made jokes about it and encouraged me to make fun of him when he no longer made any sense.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this disease is terrible and causes much sadness. I am losing my father, my mother has lost her partner, and my children have lost their grandfather. When I remember the man he was, I suffer a little despair as to all that is missing. However, the humorous things he does make the progression of his dementia more tolerable, and I know he would encourage everyone to laugh along if he could. So, if I giggle a little, I feel less guilty because I remind myself that making people laugh has been his lifelong mission.

Recently friends took him to visit my mother in hospital, which is a 30-minute drive from his house. Later, I asked him how he got there, and after thinking for a while he stated, “I think I walked.”

After a chuckle, I thought to myself that living with his dementia really is a journey, and as we walk together I will do my best to support him with grace, love, and laughter.

David R. Richardson, MD. A laughing matter. BCMJ, Vol. 61, No. 2, March, 2019, Page(s) 61 - Editorials.

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