Father's Day When Your Dad Has Alzheimer's Looks Different

It's a real mindf*ck, to be honest.

Father's Day when Yyour dad has Alzheimer's looks different. How that feels different and the loss.
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images

The best Father’s Day gift I ever gave my dad was a homemade mug, courtesy of my second grade classroom and some seriously questionable art skills. In a nod to his job as a (now-retired) oral surgeon, it was a hand-drawn picture of a mouth with a drill coming out of it, complete with long curly cord. But, thanks to my subpar 7-year-old coloring skills, it ended up looking more like a toothy grin smoking a cigarette.

It’s a hideous thing — still taking up space in my parents’ cupboard, for reasons unknown — but at the time, it seemed like a perfectly suited Father’s Day gift, which my dad graciously accepted. Now, 37 years later and three years since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I have a different perspective on Father’s Day gifts, and the holiday in general.

In late 2020, while the country was still deep in the throes of the pandemic, my dad suffered a stroke. Defying all medical odds due to his age and overall health, he survived, and the doctors told us that he would likely regain the short-term memory he’d lost within a year. But when that time came and went and there were still significant cognitive deficits, we got him to a neurologist who provided a new diagnosis: Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition that affects nearly 7 million Americans.

Since then, my sisters and I have figuratively circled the wagons, my husband, son and I have sold and bought a house closer to my parents, and we’ve adjusted to the new reality that only Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers can truly understand. I liken it to having a “chalkboard” parent: they’re still physically there, but being erased slowly over time.

Each week, each month, removes more vestiges of the dad I once knew, and I find myself gradually mourning someone who is still walking among us. It’s a surreal purgatory, especially when holidays and sentimental milestones assault the calendar. As a former editor who has compiled more than my fair share of gift guides over the years, the bittersweetness of this new iteration of Father’s Day isn’t lost on me, even if my ability to source a gift for my own dad is.

What do you get for someone whose world has gotten microscopically small? Activities like golf, which used to light him up, are off the table as his sure-footed days are gone. No style guide includes items to help reinstate the joy of his once-vibrant life, or expand his world beyond the triangle he has worn from recliner chair, to bathroom, to bed, and back to his chair.

The former product of a private military school education, my dad’s once-meticulous appearance —shoes shined, clothing ironed, hair just so — has drifted into the unrecognizable, rendering most traditional dad gifts like style and grooming products moot. I suppose I could forgo custom suit shirts and get the joggers he wears as his daily uniform monogrammed, but I doubt the old men he occasionally joins for diner breakfast would appreciate such a sartorial flex.

My dad has what is classified as moderate stage Alzheimer’s, albeit far along. He still knows who we are — though my son’s name has been relegated to “little guy” as his powers of recall diminish further — but any conversation with him involves the same question being asked over and over on a near-constant loop. “What’d you guys decide about the car?” he’ll ask, referencing my husband and my discussions around needing a safer vehicle in which to chauffeur around our 5-year-old. “We got one, Daddy,” I’ll say, looking past the fact that he has not only seen but ridden in said vehicle a half dozen times in the months since we bought it. “You did?” he’ll ask, then recall how the first car he and my mom bought 60 years ago was the same trusty make. A minute or so of small talk follows, then, like clockwork, “So what did you guys decide about the car?” What might’ve triggered impatience or involuntary frustration a few years ago is no longer a point of contention for me as I make peace with his internal rewiring. All I want now is to lean into the things he enjoys and remember things we used to connect on — like car maintenance — even if I can’t buy him a book of carwash coupons for Father’s Day, and his driving days are over.

Alzheimer’s creates a complicated duality, for the sufferer and those in their orbit. I’ve come to grips with the fact that I will never again get a voicemail of my dad being my dad, checking in on Dad Things, though when I call my house, his voice often picks up on the other end of the phone. I'm faced with the inevitable knowledge that one day I will have no more “new” photos of him to post on social media, so I attempt to post current pictures of him while I'm able, regardless of how little they resemble him.

It’s a spectacular mindf*ck, being caught in this purgatory, but one to which I suspect others can relate. My dad left the building a long time ago, but they don't make a card for that.

So then, how does one show their dad some love in these unique circumstances on a day dedicated to him? That’s the unexpected “gift” of Alzheimer’s, insofar as this cruel disease offers anything in return. Grown children of dementia patients know that we don’t need a designated holiday to demonstrate our dedication. I show him in small ways every day, like combing his hair, clipping his nails, putting lotion on his skin and preparing his food — all mundane, barely noticeable acts, but born from profound reserves of love and consideration.

It is a reciprocation of the same love that my dad marinated my sisters and I in while growing up, the same love that I see in his face when we are all together, even now. And no amount of carefully curated golf shirts, shiny new gadgets, or designer ties can hold a candle to that.

Renata Sellitti is a journalist and brand writer based in the Hudson Valley. She is a wife, boy mom, and beagle mom. She enjoys writing about everything from relationships to reality TV, loud chewers to luxury goods, and motherhood to man caves.