Ask an Expert: My Children Won’t Visit Their Father


Ask an Expert: My Children Won’t Visit Their Father

glass-423551_640Dear Denise,

My husband has Alzheimer's disease and is probably in the middle stages. He has good days and bad days. I try to make the best of each good day.

My greatest grief about our situation comes from my adult children. They rarely visit. One says that his father won't recognize him or remember the visit so there's no point. The other says that he can't handle seeing his father the way he is.

I'm so upset that our children stay away. What can I do?


Dear Alone,

Unfortunately, your situation is common. And, it's common regardless of a disease process. Many family caregivers talk about the disappearance of family members and friends because of a diagnosis or disability.

Just when you need family members and friends the most, you can't find them. It's awful. It's a heartbreaking side effect of the caregiving situation.

Your children have given you excuses about why they won't visit. But, they haven't really expressed the reason why they don't. The reason, most likely, is about a fear. Perhaps they fear that they won't know what to say or do during the visit. Perhaps they fear how upset they will be because they simply miss their father.

In other words, I don't think they know how to visit their father.

A few suggestions:

1. Invite them for short visits, even five minutes, to help them feel more comfortable. You could ask them to stop by on their way home from work or on their way home from church services on Sunday. Your request could sound like, "I'd love to see you. Can you stop by for a few moments before or after work?" I would avoid creating an excuse for them to stop by because that can feel like a manipulation. Perhaps when they see that their love for you makes a difference, they will feel more comfortable with longer visits.

2. Avoid guilting them into a visit. Guilt, like "How did I raise such ungrateful children? Give your mother a break and come for a visit," will only create more distance.

3. Talk about your own fears. You can say, "I sometimes worry I'm not saying or doing the right things. But I do my best and just simply learn as I go." Perhaps being open about your own fears will assure your children they are not alone in theirs.

4. Ask them questions. You could ask, "What's the hardest part for you about all of this?" and "What's the worry you have about your dad?" Once you ask, then listen without judgment. You're listening for an insight into a fear. Once you understand a fear, then you can help them face the fear.

5. Tell them hopeful stories. And, by hopeful I don't mean the false hope that your husband is experiencing a miraculous cure. I mean hopeful stories about what you gain from the time you spend with your husband. Maybe you can say something like, "My sadness about this situation sometimes crushes me. And, yet, I know he feels my love. I know that with all that he forgets, he remembers love. It's a powerful lesson for me to know that love always remembers."

6. If you belong to a support group, ask if you could hold a "Family and Friends" meeting so that support group members can invite their family members and friends. During the "Family and Friends" meeting, support group members can share tips and information to help these family members and friends feel more comfortable around the disease process. Members can share activities to enjoy with a person with dementia, explain the importance of reminiscing and discuss how to manage the grief and sadness many family members and friends feel. It also gives these family members and friends a chance to talk with others who may have the same fears. Be sure to volunteer to present during the meeting. You can then invite your children to the meeting to support you during your presentation.

7. Schedule a family meeting with a professional, like a social worker from the Alzheimer's Association. The purpose of the family meeting is to discuss the plan for caring for your husband, to talk about options for care and to ensure everyone understands the care plan. During the meeting, you also can talk about the importance of more visits from family members. With the presence of an objective professional, like a social worker, perhaps you can all talk openly about how to make more visits happens. If you schedule a meeting and the children don't show up, share an update about the discussion you had with the social worker. (See also No. 9.) And, be sure to take advantage of the time you have with the social worker to express your own fears and heartache.

8. During holidays and family celebrations, bring activities that family members can enjoy with your husband. Looking through photo albums, putting together puzzles, playing simple card games may be great activities for everyone to enjoy with your husband. Perhaps if you can engage family members with your husband through an activity, they will gain confidence in being with your husband.

9. Continue to communicate. Update your children regularly through phone calls or email messages or notes. Be honest about what's happening, including any updates about the disease process, new losses and the prognosis. The purpose of the communication is to simply keep your children posted on what's going on so they can't later say, "I didn't know he was this bad!" Close communication with messages of love for your children. Through the communication, you give your children important information. What they do with the information is up to them.

10. Forgive. They are breaking your heart. The best way to put together the pieces is to forgive. They must make their own decisions--which are their decisions about where they are in this journey. When you forgive, you can move forward to find the support and help you need from others, such as the Alzheimer's Association, support groups members, online support groups.

11. Stay open. Your children may need more time to figure out how to be with their father. They may show up just when you least expect it. When they do, you want to make the most of the present, these moments which become the best gifts ever. Let go of what was so you can enjoy what is.

Have you experienced a similar situation? What tips would you add? Please share your experiences and ideas in our comments section, below.

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One thing I wondered about the above situation was if the mom told her kids that she missed them and would like visits from them for her sake also.\r\n\r\nI understand the reluctance to visit.\r\nMy mother had Alzheimer's. Once she was in the nursing home I didn't visit much. I was 4 hours away, caring for my mother-in-law, but I still could have made more of an effort to get there more frequently. \r\n\r\nIt was very hard to see her. Since I didn't see her often, it usually took several minutes to go through an emotional flood of varied feelings and overwhelming sadness. Initially, I would be fighting back tears. Then I as I slowly adjusted to the new version of mom, I would just sit with her and try to be present in the moment--in her world.\r\n\r\nThere were visits when I was pretty sure she didn't know me. Then one visit, I didn't see her in the common room but she saw me and walked toward me with a big smile on her face. That smile made me so glad I was there.\r\n\r\nAt first I thought it really didn't matter anymore if I sent cards or visited my mom because she wouldn't remember anyhow. Then I read something by Bob DeMarco, who writes about his personal experience of caring for his mother who had Alzheimer's. He talked about choosing to be there whether or not the person \"knows\" or remembers if you had visited. Those with Alzheimer's still like touch, hugs, and human connection… and you really never know if they know your or not.