Dad Jokes and a Song From 1892: Connecting With a Father Who Has Dementia During Pandemic

Duane Bay with his daughter, Louise Bay Waters, and his granddaughter. (Courtesy of Louise Bay Waters)

As the coronavirus has been spreading, the world of patients in assisted living facilities has been shrinking. Including for 93-year-old Duane Bay, who has dementia.

Even until a few years ago, Bay was active and independent, climbing his own roof to do fix-it projects. Then in January, he moved to an assisted living facility in East Palo Alto. Since the pandemic prompted state and local authorities to close facilities to visitors, care workers at Bay Breeze Serenity have helped him to connect with his family on an iPad.

“It took him a little while to figure out what FaceTime was,” said his daughter, Louise Bay Waters. “He now gets it.”

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Whether he’s up to conversation or not, her father’s care workers say he lights up when the iPad connects. Waters says video chats bring her comfort, too, sometimes in the form of “really bad dad jokes.”

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Bay, apparently, was famous for puns. “They aren't as good or complicated and it's not regularly,” she says. “But at least once a week in a phone call, there's something where he will make a pun, a joke or laugh.”

Duane Bay, on May 4, 2020, at Bay Breeze Serenity Assisted Living in East Palo Alto
Duane Bay "lights up" when he sees his family via FaceTime on an iPad. Photo taken on May 4, 2020, at the Bay Breeze Serenity assisted living facility in East Palo Alto. (Courtesy of Louise Bay Waters) (Courtesy Louise Bay Waters)

Bay Breeze Serenity cares for just five residents. The day’s events, including meal times, are more flexible than larger care homes with set schedules, so Louise says it's easier for staffers to see her father’s good moments, and when he’s not napping, and choose the best time to call.

As Bay’s memory slips, he asks when Waters is coming to see him, again and again. Maybe, when health orders loosen up, she could stand outside his window and wave. But maybe, she thinks, that’s not better.

“If we could visit but had to wear masks and stand six feet away and couldn't touch, I don't know if that would be any more comprehensible or, you know, soothing or whatever than FaceTime is,” says Waters.

Waters is nearly 70. She says the coronavirus pandemic is revealing what’s not working about society, about health care, about the economy — and making her think differently about her future.

“A lot of us are optimists who always believe there are answers and things will get better if we just put our minds to it,” she says. “You know, it's sort of a sobering thing to go, well, if it doesn't, what am I going to do?”

At the same time, she sees what is working for her father: the helpers at the assisted living center, and the song, “Daisy Bell.” Written in 1892, the tune was still popular a century ago: and Waters is amazed her father knows it. “My dad is not a singer,” she says. “He can't carry a tune.”

Not long ago she asked him, “Do you remember when mom would play the piano and you'd sing this?” He nodded. So she started to sing the song “Daisy Bell,” with its lyrics about riding a bicycle built for two. Then, Bay joined in, singing back to his daughter on FaceTime.

COVID-19 has changed everything, Louise Bay Waters says — just as dementia has changed her father. But she’s still grateful that as those changes come, she and her father can ride along together a little while longer.

 

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