Michelle Tuinstra

If my dad felt loved, it’s the only thing that matters.

June 28, 2024

Michelle Tuinstra is currently working as an interim school principal and is a caregiver to her father living with Alzheimer’s. She marvels at her dad’s age of 92 and looks forward to more visits with him.

As I drove into the familiar parking lot, I smiled as I anticipated the visit with my father. I looked forward to our conversations about the newest book I’d located, Lead With Your Heart, Lessons from a Life with Horses, by a neurosurgeon called Allan Hamilton, and I envisioned taking photos of him holding the book near the large horse photo in his room. I thought the book would resonate since he frequently mentioned a childhood pet.

I found him in the dining area. “Hi, Dad!” I said. His head bobbed up from the sleeping position. “Who are you?” he inquired. I stared at him, trying to figure out if he was joking. “Are you my sister?” He knew who I was at his birthday party a few weeks before. Had something changed? I was wearing a hat and took it off. Was that the reason? 

I went to his room and retrieved the tri-fold poster we’d created, filled with family pictures. I also phoned my sister-in-law for more tips. “Get him drinking more water,” she said.

Back in the dining room, we talked about the different family pictures and fun memories. I didn’t quiz him on the names; a peaceful visit was more important. 

“I brought a book about horses for you, Dad,” I told him. He smiled. I began reading aloud and discussing with him what was in the book, which sparked valuable conversation. 

One piece of advice the book imparts is that “Patience is Compassion” — which seemed to speak more to me than him. The author states: “Goals bring out the predator in us. The price we pay is losing that sense of infinite, uncompromising patience that every horse person, every human needs.” As my father and I reflected upon that statement and how it relates to horses, I couldn’t help but think about how I often pursue goals with my father instead of being real about his condition. 

The visit ended with the usual walk in the facility hallways. We stopped to view the fish in the tank and paused again at the piano where I played a few patriotic songs for Memorial Day. Our discussion must have tired him out because he fell into a deep sleep that day. 

I left wondering if he had known who I was. Is this what our visits will look like from now on? Will I always need to establish my identity when I first arrive? Will he always think I am his sister, someone he has not seen in years? What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I felt like it was the start of a decline in his health. 

But, as the book states, “When you exhibit anxiety or frustration about making the horse perform or accomplish a specific objective, you lose your focus.” If my dad felt loved, it’s the only thing that matters.