Dear Prudence

Help! I’m Caring for My Father, Who’s Homophobic and Has Dementia. He Keeps Forgetting That I’m Gay.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A young man kneeling in front of and holding the hand of an old man, and graphics of two male figures holding hands in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

My father is 83 and has advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s. Because of the pandemic, I didn’t want to worry about him in a home somewhere, so I brought him to my home a little more than a year ago. He is very conservative, and we have had our political battles over the years, but I have resigned to let all of those go and try to enjoy the time we have left together. But I live at home with my husband (I am gay). My husband has really been very tolerant and understanding of the situation, bless him.

Every day, though, it feels like I am coming out again to my father. It never goes well. My husband has graciously stowed all the wedding pictures and tries not to show physical affection, but I feel it is so unfair to him to have to go to those lengths. And without fail, when my father pieces together that we’re married, there is a long bitter tirade about homosexuality. I have tried support groups and his doctors, but they really don’t offer any solution other than to bear it for just a little longer. Am I making a mistake in letting my husband help out in the way that he has, or should I find a way, any way, to make it through the final time my father has left?

—Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed,

asked for help with this one because, well, as you know better than anyone, this is a very painful and difficult situation. And I couldn’t see a clear solution.

You mentioned that a year ago, you weren’t comfortable with putting your father in a nursing home because of the pandemic. Still, several people who responded to my request for input suggested that you do move your father into a memory care facility. If you’re open to it now that these places are less likely to be on lockdown (and if you have an extra $3,000-$6,000 a month sitting around), this would be wonderful for everyone involved. Your dad could be safe and cared for elsewhere, and you could pop in to see him and chat about the weather (and avoid all conversation about his politics and worldview) once a week or however often you felt was necessary. And you and your husband—who potentially could never have to see your dad again—could enjoy the peaceful, homophobia-free home life you deserve.

If that’s not an option for whatever reason, I think you should start with something many people suggested, which is not exactly a solution but a helpful way to think about the problem—and is actually something you hinted at in your letter: Make your husband the priority here. You say he’s been tolerant, but “tolerant” doesn’t mean happy. For all we know, he could be at the end of his rope. For the sake of your relationship, make sure he understands how much you care about the experience he’s having and defer to him on the best way to approach your dilemma:

I know the LW is being a dutiful son, but I feel like it is coming at the expense of being a loving husband. While his husband is trying his best, I worry about resentment slowly building up under the surface. —@dfsingleton

1/2: It’s not clear if he’s deferred to his husband much (it sounds like he hasn’t), but he should def. talk about this with—and *get buy-in from*—his husband. And remember to genuinely thank him & apologize to him for subjecting him to this. —@ajc84

Make sure you and husband are speaking openly about “options” and feelings. Don’t let husband feel he can’t raise it, question it, discuss it. Empower your husband to feel agency in this situation. —@charisophia

It may be that your husband wants—reasonably—to stop hiding your wedding photos, be honest about who he is, and stand up for himself.

LW and his husband need to be who they are and live how they live—even if it means a daily battle with dad (which is already happening anyway). —@dfsingleton

Seems like, in absence of better options like placing him in a new care facility, he should empower his husband to respond however he feels is best and support him. So, if his husband no longer wants to pretend for the sake of keeping the peace or put back up their wedding photos —@byjoelanderson

… Or even wants to engage him more assertively, then he should empower his husband to do that. It seems like it’s been one-sided long enough, and it’s time for his husband to get comfortable expressing himself again. As for his pops even he doesn’t have to be nice to him anymore. —@byjoelanderson

Or, perhaps your husband is nonconfrontational, has a lot of empathy for your dad, or doesn’t think it’s a huge burden to hide part of his identity from someone who is struggling and won’t be here for long. I don’t know him so I can’t say, but another option you have is to just avoid the homophobia issue by living a lie:

If the guys can stomach it, I’d vote for lying to the homophobic dad. There’s zero chance he’s going to become less homophobic, and none of the people involved need him to go on awful rants every day. The dad is only going to notice less and less, so the lying won’t go on forever —@Daniel_Laurison

Of course, there may be a middle ground. A few people suggested giving yourself a deadline to reevaluate, or placing limits on the time you spend with your dad or the area of the home he inhabits:

I tend to find things easier with an end date. Could the couple decide to keep going on as-is for a year? If the dad is still mentally aware enough to be homophobic, then they drop the act and give dad his own “apartment” area of the house where the husband doesn’t need to be —@followdontpost

Heartbreaking situation. My advice would be focus on short-haul practical solutions: Time with your husband, focused on each other. I’d lay out the funds (if they’re there) for extra help at home, x hrs/week, so you and husband can reconnect, get away, close a door. —@charisophia

I feel like these boundaries might be hard to enforce and living in the grey area could be difficult. So, I think @Daniel_Laurison got it right when he said you should go all in: either get all the way back in the closet or be all the way open and confront and correct your dad daily: “if I were actually writing an advice column, I’d summarize - there are two viable choices, all-the-way-out or full-on-lying. Halfway isn’t working and seems to make everyone miserable. So look at the pros & cons of lying to avoid Dad yelling, vs being out & getting rants.”

Again, I think your husband—who doesn’t have any of the love for this man that you do and could leave at any time—should be the one to make the call. As @charisophia put it: “Your husband is the ‘more important’ person than Dad. You may have a moral duty to see that dad is safe and cared for. You have a higher duty to yourself and husband to ensure your marriage is strong and lasts for years. If it ever comes down to it, vote for your marriage.”

And unlike your father, he’ll remember everything.

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