A silly moment, puzzling at the time. “I never put peas in stew.” I scratched my head. I’d been eating my mother’s stew all my life, and knew the recipe…beef, onions, carrots, potatoes, peas, etc. I tried to refresh my mom’s memory. She thought about it, finally conceding, “I guess you’re right.” And I gave it no more thought until a few weeks later, when she made stew, and lo and behold, no peas.
In the larger scheme of things, a lack of peas is not a tragedy. And certainly, it didn’t rate nearly as high up on the scale of cooking mishaps as the time my mother gave out a cake recipe to my aunt, inadvertently mixing up the salt and sugar measurements. I won’t reproduce my aunt’s “salty” remarks here.
The lack of peas was my first time noticing a decline in my mother’s memory. When I got over the frustration of being told something I knew wasn’t true, it could be somewhat humorous. When my mom told me she had never owned a cell phone, I remembered the extensive discussions with her about how she had to keep the phone charged—that sitting in the glove box of her car it wouldn’t stay usable if, God forbid, something happened.
It’s somewhat probable that mom never actually used her cell phone. But it would have been helpful for the times she got turned around enroute somewhere. Her sense of direction had never been good; senility had nothing to do with it. “I was coming home from A.’s, and you’ll never guess where I wound up.” “At the airport?” “HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT!!!” “Well, mom, if you don’t turn onto I271, that’s where you wind up.” “Oh.”
All the family members of residents with dementia I work with have stories to tell about how their loved ones have changed. In some cases it is facts that are missing, situations forgotten, medicine not taken properly, plans not remembered. In other cases, it might be an inability to form a new memory, a lack of impulse control, or a change in personality.
How we react as our loved ones decline varies greatly. My cousin A. (whose home my mother had trouble returning from) continued to get angry at mom. She would yell, and my mother would get frightened and confused. Luckily that would pass. A.’s continued lament was, “I want my aunt back.” Except in rare cases of pharmacologically-induced mental changes, dementia doesn’t clear up.
Most certainly there are good days and bad days, even good and bad times of day. There can be visits where we see the old sparkle in the eyes, or where we really reach someone through music or art, or perhaps a fragrance. The downhill slope may be very slow or quite rapid. There can be plateaus that seem endless. And there are times that someone who has been “out of it” for quite a time suddenly scores very high on a mini-mental exam. I know that I’ve done my share of praying for the good days of a lot of people.
Accepting the sense of loss when our loved ones change is not easy, especially when a spouse or partner is no longer the same. How do we go from having someone with whom to share hopes and dreams, travel, a physical, sexual, and spiritual relationship, to someone who requires caretaking.
While most of us come to terms with what must be done, whether it means taking away driving privileges, wresting control over the finances, obtaining adult day care or home health care, others remain in denial, sometimes to the point of endangering themselves, their loved ones, and others. There are times when nothing more can be said, where we can only pray for others to find their way. The time when we must cede control to God. This prayer has the potential to liberate and empower us.