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Father-son duo inspire millions with unbreakable bond navigating dementia: "Enjoy every moment you have"

A look at the relationship between father and son when Dad has dementia
A look at the relationship between father and son when Dad has dementia 03:34

ELK GROVE -- For those getting ready to celebrate Dad or the father figures in their life this Father's Day, one father-and-son duo serves as a reminder to take a moment to pause and simply soak it all in.

The dynamic known for a lifetime can so quickly change when a parent is diagnosed with dementia. But Dan Salinger and his father, Ed Salinger, 92, aren't letting the daunting diagnosis slow them down.

In 2020, Ed's six children noticed his cognitive decline was getting to a point that they had to step in. Ed was still living on his own until the day he turned up with a badly bruised shoulder.

"We knew he took a fall. We knew he didn't remember it. We didn't know where. We just couldn't fathom the idea that he could be down for 12 hours and nobody finds him," Dan said.

Several of Dan's children shuffled the responsibility of caring for him in their homes, deciding ultimately they did not want to put him in a care facility.

About eight months ago, Dan and his wife, Danielle, decided to become Ed's full-time caregivers in their home so he could have more permanency and consistency in his day-to-day.

"He really needed it. We were able to step up. That's not to take anything away from any family that has to put them in a facility because they just can't do it at home. I completely get that," Dan said. "We brought him in and now, of course, he is a fixture. We wouldn't know what to do without him. I feel like the luckiest person in the world."

Life looks a lot different, as most could imagine, caring solely for a 92-year-old parent who at times can't remember where he is or who he is. Still, Dan tackles every challenge head-on.

"My dad has recently been forgetting that I am his son. He recognizes me. I look at him in the morning first thing and he knows I am connected, that I'm family, that I'm safe. But he doesn't always remember I'm his son," he said.

That's been hard on him, but it's something he's had to learn he can't take personally. He refuses to let it bother him, reintroduces himself to his dad, and keeps going.

Dan and Ed go on daily walks together, go out for lunch and spend a lot of time making videos for their often-viral social media channels. They have more than 2 million followers on TikTok, where they share the daily realities of what living with dementia is like.

"Pop, you are my father," Dan says to Ed in one of their TikTok videos.

"I'm your father?" Ed asks.

"Yes, you are," Dan says.

"Oh, okay," Ed responds.

In sharing those moments, they've created a community that's come to rely on Ed and Dan to not feel so isolated in their own journey with Alzheimer's dementia. Dan, too, had found it had made him more whole.

"Just a way to know I am not alone in this game," said Dan.

Because, sadly, it's a story so many can relate to: when the roles of child and parent swap.

"It's kind of a very fine line. He's still my father. Even if I'm chopping his toenails or telling him to take a shower, he's still my father. I can't become the parent. I can just become parent-like," Dan said. "It's a different bond. It's a different relationship, but the love has always been there."

"Do I take good care of you?" Dan asked his Dad.

"Yeah, absolutely," Ed answered.

Dan said the community has helped him work through some of his "caregiver's guilt" which is common.

"Daily, I do something that I feel guilty about that he's forgotten two minutes later but I remember," he said.

He said that others in his shoes have helped him realize he's only human, and even the moments he is not proudest of are moments to learn from.

Tucked between the fear and frustration come small glimmers of hope and mental clarity that prove to Dan his dad is still there.

"You were a good father," Dan said.

"Well, I try to be. I'm not the best father, no," Ed said.

"You're as good as I am or better than I am," Dan said.

"No, I don't think I am," Ed said.

"Well, Happy Father's Day anyway," Dan responded.

"OK. I'll take that. You're a bright guy," Ed said with a smile.

In those moments, Dan knows that if there is one thing he can take away from this thief of a disease, it's a lesson in life and love.

"Your time is limited. Enjoy every moment you have," Dan said.

For those 65 and older, about 1 in 9 people have Alzheimer's dementia across the country—that's nearly 7 million people.

June is Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month. Dan said his goal is to raise so much awareness with his dad's story that maybe one day, a generation will never have to see their parents or loved ones forget their names.

"We can raise awareness till the cows come home, but what we really need to do is find that cure," Dan said.

The best way to donate to dementia research and provide help for families living with this diagnosis is through the Alzheimer's Association.

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