Dementia is a dreary affair or topic in life, much less a blog.
My readers will appreciate that I have tried to dress it up by adding all kind of stories about nostalgic New York, travelogues on Kansas, Japan, the Bahamas, and Lithuania, multiple marriages, the America’s Cup, and business school write-ups of niche industries.
Kudzu-eating goats even pitched in to help me out on my last entry, THE FINEST ESCAPE, PART 2.
But dementia remains the overriding issue that I have tried to address in my writings; and I have sought to do so as humanely as possible. It afflicted my Father, after all. I make a point out of capitalizing the words “Father” and “Dad” out of respect for him personally, for the role he played in my life, and for the enormous personal success he achieved in life, surmounting so many challenges.
Few, very few people ever scale the heights my Father did.
Yet my Dad succumbed to a crippling illness over the course of many years. At the outset, I reiterate that I had neither special expertise nor basic knowledge of this affliction or of elder-care issues in general. Truthfully, I learned the hard way by surviving a family business, albeit with my insanity intact.
My ‘normal’ was my Dad’s successful international company, the standard by which I judged the world and work environments around me.
This family business was an opportunity that came searching for me. I knew it from childhood and it appealed to me on many levels. On certain others, however, I knew that I had to be cautious. There were warning signs that my Dad was not inherently stable.
Dementia exacerbated Dad’s worst traits. What can I say or write about an insidious disease that truly steals the soul of a loved one? Those afflicted are seemingly oblivious to its effects, while, on the other hand, they are painfully obvious to long-term family and friends. Obscure causes, an unknown cure, and the gradual nature of the illness feature among its damning qualities.
Many of the people close to my Dad in the 1980s and 1990s were not around him in the 1960s – like I was; I could add the 1950s and 1970s too, for that matter. They simply lack my extensive frame of reference. The happenstance of divorce in his life had an odd way of erasing a common standard by which to judge him, as it would have been in a family with less off-season trading.
Dad and I in the early 1960s. I’m the one in the suspenders.
Furthermore, Dad’s family was all gone by 1977 with the death of his brother Edward. Wives Pat Terry and Graciela Levi were out of his life. Gloria was newly arrived in the 1970s. My Mom only had intermittent contact with him. The only one left from Dad’s past in his life day to day was I.
The eccentric man in the 1980s and 1990s who admonished me publicly that “e-mail will never be used for business” was the only version of Bernard Olcott known to most people. While I knew differently, dealing with it was exasperating.
What made Life with Father even more difficult, amazingly, were those moments of clarity in my Dad’s words and actions during those tragic years. He knew, on occasion, what was the right thing to do, and he did it! The frustrating thing was to watch him unwind those very same wise decisions the next day. Sometimes in the next hour!
Put another way, at any given moment, it appeared that my Dad could hold two diametrically opposed opinions in his head at the same time. I found myself invariably choosing one and pleading it back to him! Only to be told that I had “no sense.”
That was admittedly a bit too much for me to endure from time to time.
Not knowing the true extent of his malady in the 1990s, I held onto the illusion that I could reason with him. I always thought I could out-argue him.
In my many stories, I have refrained, for the most part, from describing my feelings at great length. Of course I was angry, even despondent at times.
That said, looking back at so many interactions over so many years, perhaps I can transform my sorrow into something useful.
Perhaps you found this blog in your own personal search for help in your own life or with an afflicted loved one — what have others done? Or what would they have done differently if they had understood the nature of the disease? What can you do to promote a positive resolution of your situation?
Let me come from my experience and offer some guidance:
- If you are dependent on someone you suspect is showing signs of dementia, you are in a really bad situation. For your own good, you need to promote your own independence — through Herculean efforts if necessary. This has been one of the main points of The Bernard Olcott Story. When I was no longer dependent, things truly got better. Trust me on this.
- In fact, whether you are dealing with a parent or a boss of whatever stripe or condition, you should always have a Plan B. Roger Fisher’s book Getting to Yes is an seminal work in this regard — he calls it a BATNA, a “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.” Is there something you want in your commercial relationships? Try negotiating for it using the tips in this book. If you can’t arrive at a negotiated settlement, then you fall back on your BATNA. Take my example. After working in the family business after 12 years, I wanted to secure the generational transition in the best possible way. Although my Dad at times agreed, he wasn’t able to execute. So in the absence of a negotiated agreement, I created a BATNA and exited.¹
- Generally, people suffering from dementia are prone to what’s known as a “catastrophic reaction.” My story about Drop Down List vs. Pop Up button was a good example of this. Unfortunately, my ignorance at the time of the reality of dementia – meaning it is not possible to reason with an afflicted person – lead me into too many nightmarish episodes like that one. They are unpleasant and often profoundly disturbing. For complete info on this phenomena, please go to Dementia Management Strategy’s excellent website.
- Work with your siblings and/or other close mutual friends to draft a care plan, as well as to pick up the slack left by your new, more healthy distance. Someone needs to be designated as the holder of a Power of Attorney for healthcare decisions with, perhaps, another person assuming responsibility for financial transactions. If you have been in a dependent relationship, neither role is likely to be assigned to you. Which should be a relief, frankly speaking. As for me, I have both in place for my Mom, but never one for my Dad.
- Remember that dementia is an illness. Those afflicted are responsible neither for being beset by the disease nor for their actions or words. It may still hurt when they accuse you of embezzlement, but you need to know it’s the illness talking.
It bears repeating: Good fences make good neighbors. A healthier distance should work wonders in destressing your relationship with the afflicted person. If the kitchen is getting a bit too hot and uncomfortable, just go to another room.
Be kind to yourself and make sure you establish your own support network and keep it functioning. Actively experiment and note carefully what works and what doesn’t.
You are not alone and you can survive dementia suffered by your parents, or anyone. I did.
¹ – As with everything on this blessed planet, your mileage may vary. Just because you move from a close orbit to a further one doesn’t of course guarantee anything. Take the example of Mick Taylor. He became dissatisfied with the leadership of his famously successful English musical group in 1974 for a number of reasons, namely drug use (dysfunction) and denied songwriting credits (royalty income). So he left the group and pretty much vanished from the music scene. Perhaps one of the worst career moves by any known human being in recorded history, as it turns out. Now, Taylor may argue that he had to do it for other reasons like he was better off personally (if not financially), at the time he was too frustrated, and that it was worth the risk. Perhaps he needed to experiment more and create Plans C, D, and Z. It is nevertheless beyond dispute that he is a gifted and talented player, so much so that his former band mates invited him back to play in concert in 1981 and 2013. The point just needs to be made that success is not certain, even in pursuit of a solid BATNA. To risk is, after all, to court either success or failure. I admire him for his guts and the way he makes his instrument cry.