Caregiver's Home Companion Caring for someone who has trouble hearing the phone?

Posted January 30, 2011

Ask An Expert

What It Means When Dad 'Plays Possum'

Q. My 84-year-old father is currently in a rehab for a broken hip. He is in late stages of Alzheimer’s. His behavior all of a sudden is quite strange. Since last week, every time we, the family, or just my mother are there to see him, he is sleeping and will NOT wake up. Yet, as soon as we leave he opens his eyes. 

The nurse caught him as my mom was leaving. She had said goodbye, and was literally just walking away. He opened his eyes, and the nurse called to her saying he's awake. She turned around and he quickly closed his eyes. Of course, the nurses are thinking this "Playing Possum" is funny. But we find it very hurtful as we try and try to communicate with him.  

Any input to why he is doing this would be greatly appreciated. Could he be playing a game? Or could there be some other emotional explanation? My mom is taking this very personal, even though we try to tell her she shouldn’t take it that way. It's breaking her heart. She spends just about all day with him. And tries and tries to communicate. 


Barbara S., Annapolis, Maryland.

A. It is difficult to say exactly why your father is acting this way. He may simply be tired and overwhelmed by the increased daily stimulation of the rehab. It is not uncommon for older folks with dementia to get over stimulated.  I would try to give him some time to adjust to his surrounds and encourage your mom to give your father some time and space to recuperate. If the behavior continues, I would ask the doctor at the rehab to investigate the issue further.

This answer is provided by Dr. Vivian Argento, a trained geriatrician and member of the geriatric medical team at Bridgeport Hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Dr. Argento is an expert in memory and medical problems affecting the elderly and serves as a clinical instructor at the Yale School of Medicine at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. She’s also a consultant both in and out of hospitals and cares for patients in various locations, including nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and in their homes via a house calls program.

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