Parenting the Parent: Discerning Joy as Memory Fades

Parenting the Parent: Discerning Joy as Memory Fades May 4, 2015


When I was a little girl, my mom bought toys for me. Now I buy toys for her.

It’s surreal.

Mom is 86 years old, lives in a care facility, and is slipping into dementia. She insists she’s “perfectly content” whenever I ask her.

I believe her.

The staff is wonderful, and on my never-announced visits, I never find anything amiss. They put up patiently with her unpredictability – sometimes she’s congenial and sometimes she’s grumpy and uncooperative, they say. You never know what you’ll find when you enter her room. I’m told that’s a natural part of progressing dementia.

I’m learning.

This whole aging parent thing is new to me. My dad died at age 49, and so I haven’t had the chance to see him grow old. My father-in-law died at age 48 and my mother-in-law, who is 87, is amazingly self-sufficient and lives under the care of my sisters-in-law.

It’s only been within the past year that my mother’s dementia became noticeable to me. Before that, she was feisty and fierce, making it difficult to get close to her.

Then things started to change.

She started repeating questions she’d asked a short while ago. At first, I thought she was just trying to fill a lull in the conversation. But, when the questions were repeated more and more frequently, I knew it wasn’t purposeful. She couldn’t help herself.

She couldn’t remember.

Before long, I was having to explain who I was when I came to visit. After a minute or two, her eyes would brighten, and I could see that she remembered. I got used to that, but I’m still having trouble getting used to the fact that she absolutely does not remember one of my sisters. I mention her name, try to refresh the memory, but her eyes never brighten.

The memory isn’t there.

After a while, she surrenders and accepts the fact that she has a daughter named Chris who is married to a guy named Max and we leave it at that.

It’s no use.

At first, Mom’s dementia disturbed me. I’d get uncomfortable with it and impatient at the repeated questions. On the way home from visiting one day, I remembered something my dad had told me in regard to his own mother.

“When the children are small, the parents feed them, dress them, bathe them, and wipe their butts. When the parents get old, it’s time for the children to do the same for them,” he said.

Mom doesn’t need me to wipe her butt, but she does need me to be there and to connect with her in whatever way she and I can connect. So, I bring her toys because they’re entertaining. What’s more, it’s a reminder to her that someone cares about her even while I’m not visiting. When I do visit, she remembers me as the gift giver, if nothing else.

Her favorite is the battery-operated songbird that sings when you tap its nose. It’ll also repeat what you say, so I recorded,  “Hello, Eva. How are you today?” so that she’ll have “somebody” to talk to her even when I’m not there.

It makes her laugh.

She laughs because, in her dementia, she’s become very childlike. The little things bring her great joy, and I love that about her. My mom had an incredibly tough life and consequently was a very troubled woman. All of that is gone now and there’s a gentleness and peacefulness about her that I’ve never seen before.

That is a tremendous gift to me.

And so I answer her questions for the umpteenth time, remind her about the people she has forgotten, show her pictures to jog her memory, listen to her mixed up stories, and bring her toys that make her smile. It’s all part of keeping the connection.

I know from others that it can be extremely hard to see an aging parent slip into dementia, and I don’t make lightly of it. I’m not glad that my Mom has slipped into it, and yet I’m grateful that she is finally out of her torment and that it’s given me a chance to get close to her before it’s too late.

For that, I thank God.



Image: Photo by Chalmers Butterfield, Creative Commons

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