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The Father-Son Dynamic Changes with Dementia and Memory Loss

In celebration of Father’s Day, I would like to honor the love between dads and their sons. The relationship between a father and his son changes and develops through life, as the son grows into a man, but the steady theme is often guidance, as the father gradually prepares his son for an independent life.


When your father begins to show early signs of cognitive decline, at first the relationship between you might seem to be turned on its head. If it was your dad who taught you to balance your checkbook, you may feel a special kind of distress when you see him suddenly struggling to keep his own in order. Maybe your dad emphasized keeping track of your belongings, and kept after you until you learned to put everything back in its place. If so, then watching him losing small objects may be especially emotional for you.

Or maybe you were lucky enough to have a father whose very personality gave stability and order to your home when you were a child. If you have a father whose good cheer kept the clouds away, and shook you out of your own emotional downs, then watching him suffer from mood and personality changes that can be early signs of dementia will be especially painful.

A father–son relationship can be built on the care that the father gives to the son in his childhood, and that habit of caregiving often remains long after the child grows up. A grown son may turn to his father for advice, both practical and emotional. Or he may just rely on his father’s understanding and companionship.

So when suddenly it is the son who is taking care of the father—helping him keep track of the logistical details of his daily life, taking charge of planning, even being a stabilizing emotional presence—both the father and the son may be troubled. Understanding and appreciating the delicate dynamics of this new situation and placing them in the context of the old relationship can help both of you navigate the changing circumstances of your life together.

Respect is always the first principle in any caregiving situation.

Respect is always the first principle in any caregiving situation, whether you’re taking care of a toddler or an aging person. In the case of a father–son relationship, this respect has a special dimension: a recognition of how hard it is for a father to relinquish to his own child his role as guide and counselor. As his son, with empathy, approach problems with great tact, emphasizing when you can that you learned the skill you’re using from him.

Another way to treat your father with respect is to build on the relationship you have together as much as you can. Do you have old running jokes? Make frequent use of them both to lighten the mood when you’re both feeling discouraged and to subtly remind him of your love for him. Now more than ever is the time to refresh interests you shared when you were a child.

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, you might find that your father responds best to “cues and clues” rather than explicit direction. For example, if he is obviously searching for a word, try showing him you understand him by picking up the flow of the conversation instead of either waiting or supplying the word for him. Or if he seems disoriented with regard to time or place, instead of asking him directly if he knows where he is, or what time of year it is, give him a broad hint to pick up on (“It’s almost time for Christmas—remember how we used to always put up the lights together?” or “I’m glad we’re going to call Aunt Anne. We haven’t seen her in a long time.”).

The prospect of increasing dementia can be distressing and discouraging, especially when it seems to dislodge established dynamics in a relationship between a father and his son. But with a little creative love, you can find ways to build a refreshed relationship of respect and loving kindness that is not a substitute for the old relationship, but a new version of it.