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What Can You Do When Your Mother Doesn't Know Who You Are?

Natural remedies have been a major interest of Kelley's in recent years, and he's also fascinated by unusual food and beverages.

Photo used by permission of Henry Garciga

Photo used by permission of Henry Garciga

Dementia affects everyone . . . one way or another

My mother has been changing for about the last ten years. Now that she’s well into her seventies, I suppose that’s to be expected, but I don’t have to like it, and if she knows what’s happening to her, I’m sure she doesn’t like it either.

You see, my mother seems to be suffering from senile dementia or perhaps it’s the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease, which can eventually cause death. Along with old age, it killed President Reagan. At any rate, my mother certainly isn’t the same cheerful, affable, quick-witted person she used to be.

The “change” started about ten years ago. While visiting her at Christmas, she and I were talking about drunk driving – for some reason. She said this guy who had caused an auto accident had more than point-eight alcohol in his system. I said, “No, Mom, it’s point zero eight.”

Then she snapped at me, “Don’t correct me - everybody says point-eight!”

I peered at my mother as if she had presently grown a set of fangs. “You never complained about me correcting you before,” I said.

“I’ve never liked you correcting me,” she said, “and I’m not going to put up with it anymore.”

I let the subject drop.

The following day, Christmas morning actually, we got into a big argument, the cause of which is unimportant, something trivial, and at one point I finally concluded, Well, I guess my mother is getting old.

So now I correct her only by accident.

If sudden testiness were the extent of my mother’s descent into the ravages of advancing years, it wouldn’t be so bad, but now she seems to be losing her memory and her social skills as well.

While on one of my bi-yearly visits, I’ll often see my mother mumbling to herself as she ambles about the house or watches TV. I talk to myself too, but not while other people are around. I wouldn’t want them to think I’m daft, of course.

She can lose her temper in a millisecond as well. She swatted my sister on the arm once, simply because my sister had told her to “not bother with something,” speaking in a way that we all talk to each other, not meaning to be rude, naturally, yet for some reason my mother took immediate offense.

Certainly the largest and most troubling change for my mother is that her memory has deteriorated, especially the short-term variety. She’ll ask me the same question over and over again, sometimes after just a minute or so.

Her long-term memory is still fairly good, but she’s lost a fair amount of that too. For instance, she can’t recall this VHS tape she had this video shop make using our old super-eight movies. (Her husband, my stepfather, remembers the tape but can’t recollect where he put it! So we can’t watch that VHS tape anymore.) Also, my mother can’t seem to remember what some things are. On the telephone once, I asked her to change my zip code in her address book. There was dead air over the telephone line until I changed the subject, and my zip code still hasn’t been changed.

Perhaps the most troubling transformation in my mother, from my standpoint anyway, is that she no longer uses my name, on the telephone or in person. Apparently she’s forgotten it. During my latest trip to her place, she kept walking into my room without knocking, and she never used my name or asked if she could come in and move the blinds or whatever. In the past, she always would have knocked first and asked if it were all right to come in, just like nearly everybody else would do, of course.

Reflecting on such interactions, I often wonder if my mother still knows who I am. I think she does but I’m not really certain. At any rate, I’m afraid to ask her.

Nevertheless, at this point, it’s obvious my mother can no longer take care of herself or the house. If she lived alone, she’d leave the stove on and burn down the house, or forget to pay the bills and they’d start shutting off the utilities.

However, as long as my step father – about the same age as my mother but in much better mental shape - is capable of taking care of her and the house, the status quo will continue. But when he can’t continue because of chronic illness or death, what will my sister and I do about our mother? One of us could move in with my mother, but since I still have to work and happen to live 160 miles away, I doubt that plan would work for me. After all, in advanced states of dementia people have to be watched all the time, as if they were still toddlers. Some of them end up in diapers, in fact. Even though my sister doesn’t have to work and lives close to my mother, I’m not sure she would take on that responsibility. Who could blame her?

On a related note, one of my mother’s older sisters – at the time quite a bit younger than my mother is now - got lost one day while taking out the trash. Her son had to go find her. Alzheimer’s eventually killed her. But another older sister, about as old as my mother is now, was lucid until she succumbed to natural causes. One sister gets it, while the other doesn’t. Figure that out.

Eventually, if my mother lives long along, my sister and I may have to put her in a nursing home. These places are very expensive, naturally, costing at least $2,000 per month, so I’ve been told anyway. We could afford that expense only if we sold my mother’s house and used the money to pay for the nursing home. At some point, she could be put in a government home, but not until she’s indigent.

So it goes. The uncertainly is not enjoyable to consider. But, when your folks get old, what are you gonna do? And, as I segue into senescence, what fate awaits me?

Here’s an update on my mother’s condition:

My mother looks and acts as if she were insane. She seems in a perpetual state of agitation, confusion and/or paranoia. She’s afraid of virtually everything and seems to have no friends, except for her husband, who must be at her side virtually every minute or she becomes angry or whimpers piteously. Isn’t there some release from this miserable state?

There is, of course, and we all know what that is. I hope my mother is granted this relative state of grace sooner rather than later. Amen.

Alzheimer’s disease, aka the Big A, killed my mother on May 22, 2011. She was 78. May she rest in peace.

My mother and stepfather in 1978

My mother and stepfather in 1978

My mother as a young woman

My mother as a young woman

© 2009 Kelley Marks