DEAR MISS MANNERS: Any rules on how to answer the phone when (thanks to caller ID) we know who's calling? Seems to me it can be offensive to answer by saying "Hi John," but it's downright dishonest to pretend to be surprised. Any way out of this dilemma?
GENTLE READER: You will forgive Miss Manners if she sees this as an etiquette question, not a moral dilemma. It is not a betrayal of principle to allow a caller to identify himself, and it is perfectly polite to say hello without sounding astonished. Besides, any surprise you may register at hearing from that person need not have worn off by then.
That said, the time is rapidly approaching when it will seem natural and reasonable to greet a telephone caller by name (presuming it is an individual telephone, not a shared one), just as it is to recognize a person who is standing at your door when you open it -- or look through the peephole.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My father has a fast-moving case of Alzheimer's. It's absolutely devastating. In three years, he's gone from working in a high-tech job and being sought after both at work and in the neighborhood for his broad knowledge and expertise to not knowing where he's going to spend the night (and being fearful about the possibilities).
I've been struck by the extent to which social interactions matter to him. Dad might have forgotten many things, but he still knows how to observe social conventions, and this is an area where he can still succeed. What may seem like shallow small talk is the best Dad can manage right now, and for him it's a deep and affirming connection.
Unfortunately, most people shrink away from contact with Dad. In a way, it's understandable because contact with him does require accommodation. The people who do best with him (bless their hearts) are the ones who have good manners to fall back on.
Dad might not know who is greeting him, but he knows he likes to be greeted and have his hand shook while someone is looking him in the eye. He may be confused, but he knows when he's being treated like a child or treated as if he's not there. His feelings are more important now than ever because he can't balance them with reason.
Family members and friends are just about the least likely to treat Dad with warmth, I suppose because of the pain they feel at seeing the change in him.
Watching Dad has shown me, again, what a powerful place manners have in our lives. They provide an operating blueprint for many difficult situations. For anyone looking for advice on how to visit with someone suffering from Alzheimer's, I would suggest greeting them as if they were a stranger you wanted to make a good impression on. Let them take the lead on any topics that don't fall into the category of small talk. Act friendly, because the friendliness will matter more than anything you say.
GENTLE READER: Miss Manners thanks you for making this extremely important point. Contrary to popular belief, manners are far from superficial. Once ingrained, they become part of people's humanity, as demonstrated by your father's retaining them when so much else has gone. That they can be a vast improvement on natural behavior is shown by the natural behavior of people who care for him and yet shun him, as opposed to those who have the courtesy to continue the relationship.