Where’s My Cake?



Dear Dharma,

Recently, I was at a family get-together at my parents’ house for my nephew’s birthday. On this occasion it included my 85-year old grandfather, who is a widower struggling with early-stage dementia (though he has difficulty recognizing or admitting it, for understandable reasons).

Generally at these gatherings, my siblings and I take turns helping my parents with the hosting duties – serving dessert and coffee, getting drinks and refills, clearing the tables etc. We certainly don’t mind at all, especially since my parents are gracious enough to host.

However, this time I was taken aback when my grandfather yelled at me sharply across the room, “Sarah, can you hear me? Are you deaf? Get me another piece of cake!” while holding out his plate to me.

I froze for a second on being addressed this way, part of me wanting to repeat the refrain we use for my nephews (they’re 2 and 4) to remind them to use their manners, but I didn’t want to embarrass him or make a huge deal about it, so I simply got him his cake and said nothing.

I was offended to have been addressed like the hired help neglecting her post. From a few conversations with my mother, I gather this behavior has become more frequent, though it’s generally directed towards strangers who impede him in the grocery store or customer service reps.

I understand that mood swings, temper, and even personality changes are some of the side-effects of dementia, and I certainly understand that one cannot help the symptoms of a disease.

But I also don’t think this behaviour is at all appropriate and I don’t want to see this become a pattern of how he treats people – strangers, service reps or family.

Is there a way to politely address my grandfather’s lack of manners the next time this occurs, while still showing sensitivity for his illness and feelings?

Not the Hired Help

Dear Hired Help (Not),

Aww, I’m sorry.  Dealing with any stage of dementia has got to be one of the most heart wrenching things.

As you know, Dharma is not anything close to being a doctor, so the only thing I’m going to say about your grandfather’s illness is Google everything you can about it.

Google the changes in behaviors and the best way to handle that.  Google things that trigger certain reactions and how to control (somewhat) his environment.

Reading up on these things will help you going forward for sure.  It’s all new territory for you and your family and the more you know about it the “easier” it will be.  Acknowledging, of course, that none of this will be easy…

Intellectually, I can tell you understand that your grandfather is losing his ability to behave “normally”, and you’re right – his behaviors aren’t what is considered socially “appropriate”.  And you acknowledge that one cannot help the symptoms of a disease.  So you get it… on an intellectual level.

But there’s a conflict.

While on the one hand you understand that he can’t help the way he interacts with people, the reactive part of you is offended at the way he interacts with people.

Simply put, your emotions are having a hard time catching up to what your brain has come to terms with.  And that’s okay.  It’s a tough thing to get your head around.

The main thing you must understand, that you must talk yourself into believing, is that it wasn’t personal.  He did not see you as the hired help, he was not intentionally attacking you.  He really wasn’t, even though all of your emotions indicated otherwise…  And for what it’s worth, I think you handled things exactly right by simply getting grandpa his cake and moving on.

One of the unfortunate realities of this disease is that the likelihood of this becoming a pattern in how he treats people – strangers, service reps or family – it’s really very high.

So while you are educating yourself on this disease, also focus on developing some coping techniques so that you don’t spend the next who knows how many years feeling under attack.



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  • Big Guy says:

    I don’t think the issue is whether grandpa treated her like incompetent help, but the idea that he is changing from the person he used to be. It is a terrible disease, but to think that you can “train” him to be nicer, is borderline denial of the reality. Why not train him to have longer arms too, so he can get his own damn cake?

    There are things you CAN do to try to limit the effects of dementia, (and I am by no means an expert) but like Dharma says, Google is your friend here. It is sad, and painful, but you can get through it, although you may have to let the occasional outburst slide.

    • Dharma says:

      I’m thinking because this seems like a relatively new condition that the LW is still adjusting to grandpa’s new behaviour – and fair enough… but you are correct in saying that to think he can be trained to behave better is a bit of a pipe dream.

      Sadly, the likelihood of this becoming a pattern is something that needs to be accepted by the family and finding coping mechanisms is their best shot at getting through it.

      Thanks for your comment, Big Guy…

  • I watched my Mum struggle through watching dementia completely change her parents personality (my grandparents) and it was heartbreaking. It’s a horrible disease.

    The only thing I can advise is trying to remember that those outbursts are not your Grandfather, they are his illness. But it’s hard. There are many times a horrible or cutting remark brought my Mum to tears.

    • Dharma says:

      That’s a really great point, Suzie, that the outbursts aren’t coming from the person you love, they are coming from that POS illness.

      Thanks for sharing that…

Whether you agree with Dharma or think she missed the mark on this one, leave a Comment!

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