My Nightly Ritual with Dad


When I came home to look after my dad, I had multiple notions about how our time would be spent together. I assumed we would share afternoons reminiscing over vacations and birthday parties. I imagined we'd enjoy one more city excursion to explore our favorite haunts like the Art Institute and Field Museum. Whatever we did, I was intent on making the most of every second we had together.

But my dad had other plans in mind.

Or really, his body did. My dad was always game for a trip downtown. But just weeks after his diagnosis, he was already too weak to walk for more than a minute or two without having to rest and catch his breath.

So I focused on getting in as many meaningful chats as I could. During those first few weeks, I would launch into a daily "Dad, remember when we…" story to which he would smile, offer a "I sure do" and then fall silent.

I didn't understand. Why didn't he want to relive those stories? This was it. There wasn't going to be another time to talk about the million memories we had together.

Instead, my father watched TV. A lot of it.

Granted, he no longer had the energy to leave the house very much, but I thought that at least we could spend our days remembering the happy times. I noticed that he often would pull out photographs and gaze at them, but when I would talk about those memories, his silence would inevitably cut short the conversation.

It finally dawned on me that my insistence to talk about the past was doing more harm than good. Though it provided me with some solace to remember all the memories I had with my dad, it became clear that it was almost painful for him to relive them. The only conclusion I could come to was that remembering the past served only to reflect how different everything was in the present.

So I shut up. With nowhere to go and nothing to say, though, I found myself spending a lot of time watching TV with my dad. We quickly settled into a routine. Each afternoon, we tuned into "Jeopardy!" Once the afternoon news was over, it was on to "Wheel of Fortune." Then we would switch over to PBS and catch an episode of "Antiques Roadshow," "History Detectives" or "Rick Steves' Europe."

Some nights my dad remained quiet or would fall asleep. But, more often than not, our TV binges turned into discussions about why a rickety old hutch could be worth thousands of dollars or how you could confirm the veracity of a Beatles autograph. Soon enough, we would call out our own appraisals of the knickknacks that the antiques experts examined and debate whether Rome was worth the hype.

That was our nightly ritual.

When someone you love is terminally ill, I think it's easy to become almost obsessed with making the time you have with them count. In the movies, terminally ill characters still somehow have the stamina to build houses or go on cross-country road trips with their family and friends. The reality, though, is that when you're dying of cancer, you may not have the physical or emotional strength to even get up from the couch.

I'm so glad for all those hours I logged in front of the television with my father. We never really got around to reminiscing over old memories, but that's because we were creating new ones. Though our ritual might appear dull or insignificant to some, I will always treasure it. Life-changing trips and talks are great, but so are the nights spent vegging out to PBS. All that matters is that you're doing it together.

Anna Keizer was the caregiver to her father who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2013. A writer by profession, she has written extensively on a variety of health topics, including cancer, heart disease and stroke, for healthcare clients across the nation. She also writes for walk-in tub manufacturer Bliss Tubs and its aging in place blog.

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What an apropo article for me! Thank you for sharing such wise perceptions of true quality time spent with dad. I am a new caregiver for my dad and like you had preconceived notions as to how our time should be spent together. I have since learned that what makes my dad happy and WHAT I think will make him happy might be two different things. The reminiscing with pictures is not necessarily the thing that makes him smile. My mom died 7 years ago and he doesn't always want to talk about her because he loved her so and they were married for 63 years. He also doesn't want to visit her grave. I never force him it I have learned to respect his needs rather than inserting mine. So most of our quality time is spent in front of the tv or playing cards, domino, etcetera. My dad's mind is still amazingly intake for a man of 95 years old. So thank u for your reminder that happiness and joy showe up in different ways and as the child we must learn to readjust our own expectations as to what that looks like. Blessings
FreyaE: Dealing with a parent who has Alzheimer's means having a new normal. My mom, now deceased, had dementia as a result of a stroke. While I live 1200 miles from my parents (my mom is now deceased), I phoned my mom often. As with your dad, my mom often talked about things that hadn't happened, and like you, I just went along with it and enjoyed our conversations, accepted the new normal/my new mom, and enjoyed and cherished the times I had with her-- and rejoiced that she recognized my voice on the phone and me in person and that her face lit up when she either heard my voice or saw me. I have good and lasting memories of those times with my mom and will always cherish those new normal times along with the memories of my mom before she became demented. Unfortunately, certain actions taken by my severely mentally ill dad both led me to be effectively barred from my mom during her last month of life and not being at her deathbed and also caused both my mom and me alot of mental and emotional trauma. My dad's betrayal of me in the form of blatant lies about me to legal authorities in his state, has caused me to have to sever ties in order to avoid further horrible encounters with his state's legal system. So, I guess I'm also one of those people who can say that I can't look back at these very last memories of my parents with any happiness. My last memories of my parents will be ones I'll want to forget, although I'll have good memories of earlier times before dementia came into play and before my dad's mental illness became so severe (he had a long standing mental illness dating back to his younger years, but my mom kept my dad under control and shielded my sister and me from his illness). You're lucky that you had good times with your dad and that he was able to tell you and show you that he loved you, two things that my dad has been unable to do for the past 6 -8 years, although he can very readily tell non-family members that he loves them and show it to them. As your dad and the good memories you made with him when he had Alzheimer's are a gift to you, so is it with my mom.
Lovely original post.
I agree, my dad likes me just to sit in peace with him.
I record classical music documentaries for him, and anything I think would be of interest to him.
We sit and listen to a lot of music (some makes him sad because it reminds him of mum, who died only last month)

He was a Spitfire and Meteor pilot, and I have managed to find an airfield with a working meteor & I wrote to the owners to ask if any chance I could bring him along and them fire up the engines for him.
Long shot, but I just heard they'd be delighted!
Just need to set the date and hope for warm weather! (He is 89, and it is almost November! Don't want him to catch cold, but equally don't want to wait til Spring, just in case!!

Praying for a warm Indian Summer!!!