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Lynn's Story
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Lynn's Story

Denial - An Elephant in the Living Room

I was reminded of the story "An Elephant in the Living Room" where the author refers to the metaphor of a household who has a father with alcoholism, and the family members react in denial. The metaphor is an elephant (a huge problem that no one wants to own) filling up the living room. It eventually smells bad (all the problems resulting from this denial), while the family remains in denial and the problems become unbearable.

Until the family can open up and become aware there is a problem, accept it is a family disease, and take the necessary actions, this huge problem will get worse and eventually explode.

I felt the same way while being the caregiver for my father with Alzheimer's. My father was diagnosed with dementia in the mid 80s at Veterans Hospital; it took three years. He was only 53, and a live wire loved by many. Because he was previously disabled with back problems, I was already his caregiver.

He lived with us and helped me with our running our family business and raising my two children. As the dementia started to show, he would leave water running, forget things easily, was repeating himself just enough to make me wonder if something was wrong. The doctor checked him and said he seems a little forgetful, but it could have been a mini stroke, alcoholism or dementia.

So the process of elimination began -- tests over the next few years leading to the diagnosis. My father started to become a danger to himself and others due to smoking, not recalling right-of-way while driving, forgetting he didn't have good brakes in his car and taking it for a ride. I became so concerned, I contacted family members to discuss current issues and ask if they would assist in watching out for potential dangers and just help me ascertain the reality of the situation.

I needed a reality check, as I thought I was going out of my mind. Or, was it just me seeing this? The response was one of two, or both. The first of course was complete denial; they didn't want to accept that he could have Alzheimer's. They would tell me, "He's fine, he just forgot. He can do everything else okay." The second was, "I can't help and I don't know what to say."

It was easy for the family to stay in denial because it is hard to see the behavior at first, and some patients, like my father, were very good at hiding it.  It felt like "The Elephant in the Living Room" because we all knew something wasn't right, but no one wanted to face the truth of this devastating diagnosis.

It was quite painful for me, and I understand their denial. But I am writing to raise awareness about coming alongside the caregiver of the patient and at least support them, even if you can't believe them. It wasn't until he didn't recognize people did they finally accept his diagnosis (many years later).

I was the caregiver trying to get the family to see the elephant in my living room, but denial is very strong for those that need it. I thank God for the Alzheimer's Association support; they helped me cope when I was struggling by myself. I learned some can help while others cannot.

As the caregiver, I had to find the support outside of my family. Some family had to detach completely, and I understand. The Alzheimer's Association taught me that I'm not alone, and their education and support helped me all the way. I learned not to take any of it personally, then I did much better. Love grew - and the elephant in the living room went away.


Alzheimer's Association

Our vision: A world without Alzheimer's disease®.
Formed in 1980, the Alzheimer's Association is the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer's care, support and research.