My Mother's Dementia: What We Both Lost
A visit to a former home reveals disturbing gaps in her mom's memory
I spent last night in the ER with my mom. She’s 88. She’s becoming frail and her memory is fading. She can’t see (the kind of macular degeneration that isn’t treatable) and she can’t hear well (too stubborn to get a hearing aid). Her confusion is becoming a daily companion rather than an infrequent visitor.
In the examination room, they asked her simple questions. Either she didn’t answer or she replied to something no one had asked. I tried to help. “You’re here because you woke up last night and...” Like a Mad Lib, I want her to fill in the blanks. The singsong tone of my own voice reminds me of doctor visits with my children, when I’d try to get them to answer the questions. “Honey, you’re here for your physical because you’re going where this summer?” It occurs to me, Mom likely did this for me as well.
I think back to a Sunday afternoon a couple years ago, the first time I felt the karate kick of her confusion. My folks had sold my childhood home a half dozen years earlier. My sons knew the place intimately and now the house was back on the market. When they held an open house, we all went.
What Changed, What Didn't
Much had changed. The wall between the tiny kitchen and the formal dining room had come down, creating a contemporary eating and dining space. Upstairs, an outdated bathroom and a small closet had merged into a luxurious spa.
Some things remained just as they had in my childhood, though. The tile in the main floor bathroom was still the ancient, thin powder blue strips with fleur de lis accents; 75 years after the house was built, it was back in style, evidently.
I wandered to the sunny picture window in the living room where I used to listen to Partridge Family records on my brother’s stereo. (Don’t judge. They were groovy.) I squinted to block out the new silver-blue paint, trying to make it look just as it had four decades ago. The boys migrated to my dad’s office. That’s where they’d played now-ancient video games on his old Apple IIe computer and typed on his dinosaurian Selectric typewriter.
The tiny wood-paneled den held memories for all of us. I looked at my now 6-foot son and thought back to his toddler days when he would beg my mom to paint his fingernails ruby red, just like hers.
Growing up, my sister and I shared the upstairs of the Cape Cod‑style home. As a kid, there had been a door at the bottom of the stairs, now removed. When we walked past the opening, my mom said: “Oh, look. They added stairs.”
My Mother, My Son and Me
I turned to smile at her joke, but she studied the stairs as though seeing them for the first time, even though she’d walked past them several times a day for more than 30 years. But the boys kept walking and she and I followed. In her old bedroom, which had changed little except for the paint and the furniture, she said: “I don’t remember this room. This must be new.”
“Of course you know this room. It was your bedroom,” I responded. When I spoke, my voice sounded like a sharp piece of metal, even to my own ears. My son mock-whispered at me to stop. And he gently took my mom’s hand and led her to my brother’s old room.
The rest of the tour went like that. My mom asking what I deemed ridiculous questions and the boys shushing me when I snapped at her.
It didn’t occur to me until that night what an upside down feeling she must have had — a place so familiar, and yet so changed. My sons grasped that much better than I had. But then to them, she had always walked slowly, lived small, been old.
Learning to Be Patient
I’m more patient with Mom these days, in part because I know her confusion more intimately and in part because I allow myself some sympathy, too. We both have lost something of my mom — her intelligence, her grasp of what was important, her sensibility. I try to concentrate on the moments where she seems good, the times when she’s happy just as she is.
Looking at her is like stepping inside my childhood home again — so familiar and so changed. If I squint just so, I can catch a glimpse of what was. But I stop and open my eyes wide, so I can see the beauty of what is.