“Let’s call Papa,” I said.
“Which one?” my six-year-old asked.
“My dad,” I replied, and she groaned, breaking my heart a little.
I understand why my daughter would much rather talk to my father-in-law, who is engaging and interactive. Honestly, I prefer talking to him too. Conversations with my dad are like pulling teeth. His dementia makes him slow to respond, and it’s hard for him to keep track of which granddaughter he’s talking to. My six-year-old get frustrated repeating herself again and again, or waiting to Papa to reply to something she’s said. To make matters worse, we only talk to my dad by phone, since video calls needs to be organized through his nursing home and are pretty overwhelming for him.
“It makes him really happy to hear from you,” I told my daughter as I dialed dad’s number.
The pandemic has forced families apart, placing a social distance between grandparents and grandchildren whether they live close together or far apart. With vaccines coming many families see an end in sight. I’m worried that the past year has caused irreparable harm in the relationship with my older daughter and my dad. As for my youngest… I’m not sure she even realizes who he is. But I’m hoping that this vaccine might be available just in time to salvage their relationships.
A Relationship Shaped By Mental Illness
I’ve always known that my girls would have a limited relationship with my father. He’s had a life-long struggle with bipolar disorder and been in a severe depression for 13 years. Complications from his mental health condition led to a series of strokes, and he has lived in a nursing home since he was 52. We visit when we can, but since we live two hours away our visitations were limited even before COVID.
Despite that, Dad and my older daughter have always had a special relationship. They share a birthday, and because she has always known this new man, challenged by mental illness and memory loss, she loves him for who he is today, while I get caught up in mourning who he used to be.
I’ve learned a lot from my daughter. She could sit with my father’s silence, when I became frustrated with it. She was satisfied with a snuggle on the couch, or him sitting silently in the yard with her, while I wanted more meaningful connection. When I learned to treat my dad how my daughter did — enjoying the man who was being present as best he could — I was able to enjoy my time with him, rather than wishing for the past.
Hope for Future Visits
I’m no stranger to helping my kids connect to their grandparents from a far: my in-laws live in Australia, so 90% of their interactions with my children are over technology. Although it’s always been that way, both my girls have a great connection with their Australian grandparents: they show off their art and play games over video call, or just chat like they would in person.
None of that works with my dad. Phone just isn’t the same as video for kids who are used to seeing the person their talking to. A person with dementia can’t keep up the level of engagement that 2- and 6-year-olds demand.
For the past nine months I’ve felt helpless. Even if my dad and I chose to see each other, his nursing home wouldn’t allow it. They briefly organized socially-distanced outdoor visits this summer, and while my dad enjoyed watching the kids, seeing him without being able to embrace was gut-wrenching for me.
So, I’m watching the news of a vaccine with hope, like many of us are. I’m excited not only for my kids to return to school and life to feel a bit more normal, but also for the chance for my girls to have a relationship with their grandpa again. A vaccine means that my dad can come to my house like he used to, watching my younger daughter do flips and conspiring with my oldest to get pizza for dinner. It could means that when they’re my age, my girls will remember their Papa. Surely that’s worth a shot.
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