How to break the news

Dear Jo,

My father has suffered from Parkinson’s disease for the past 14 years, and the doctor recently told us he also has Alzheimer’s. The trouble is, my dad doesn’t know yet. We want to wait until after his birthday this month, so he can still enjoy his time with our family – we’re planning a big celebration! How do we break the news?
Putting It Off

Dear Putting It Off,
My suggestion would be to evaluate, of course with input from his doctor and other family members, how you should “break the news.” I find it rather curious that the doctor told you and not him directly, so there must be some reason for that – probably not just because there is an important birthday on the horizon. These are some of the questions you should ask yourself:

• Does he need to know, and why?
• Do you think he already knows he’s having some memory impairment, and his knowledge of the disease would provide a confirmation of why he is struggling with these issues?
• What will it mean to him, and what does it mean to you, that he has Alzheimer’s?
• Will this change his care, his independence, or his current living situation?
• Will this change the family dynamics, and how?
• What do you, your family, and perhaps he need to know about Alzheimer’s so you can continue to interact positively and enjoy the time you have together?

The celebration, and how he is able to tolerate a large celebration, may already answer some of these questions. It is often stated that one of the most feared diseases is Alzheimer’s, and it is my impression that you and your family believe your father will agree with this statement. However, I have worked with persons with Alzheimer’s disease for nearly 30 years, including my own mother. It is still possible to have many good times with your father, to enjoy every visit, and to appreciate the person who exists, though he will not necessarily continue to exist in the role he once had in your lives. It is important to learn to focus on his abilities rather than his disabilities – something I’m sure you and your family have some experience with – and to focus on enjoying time together rather than the loss and changes that are taking place. There are many resources available to assist you with these questions as you travel the Alzheimer’s journey with your father.