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The 'Dude' Approach to Dementia

Remembering my stoned roommate helped me cope with Mom's memory lapses

By Kathy Berdan

"Did I know you were coming today?"

"Yeah, Mom. I wrote you a letter." (The same letter that's sitting right there on your kitchen table in your assisted living apartment — unopened.)

As dementia slowly erased the strong, smart woman who was my mother, I was fortunate to live close enough to visit a couple of times a month. The trips brought me back to the small Minnesota prairie town where I'd grown up. I loved the Sunday meals in the dining room (orange or apple juice and a shredded iceberg lettuce salad with ranch or French dressing at every meal!) and the chance to share a table with some of the hometown folks who had hired me to babysit or watched me teach swimming at the local pool.

But alone time with Mom grew more and more frustrating. Sometimes she'd ask me to repeat an anecdote I'd told her just a few hours earlier.

"But I just told you about that."

"Oh, I know," she'd say. "But it was such a good story, why don't you tell it again?"

She was tricky that way.

Dementia? Laugh It Off

On my drive home from one such frustrating visit, a song by The Cars came on the radio. It always made me think of my goofy college roommate.

Back in the day, most everyone had a stoned college roommate you loved, even though she was rarely paying attention and always asking questions.

"Dude, are we going to that party on Friday?"

"Did we order a pizza?

"Oh, man. Do you remember if I had my purse when we left the bar?"

Stoned College Roommate was charming and quirky. You answered her questions with a shake of your head and a laugh. And it was easy to remind her what time we were leaving, pick up her purse on the bar or pay the pizza delivery person.

Why was that so easy, and constant questions and forgetfulness from my mom were so difficult? Maybe Mom and I needed to listen to The Cars. Or Queen. Or Boz Scaggs, dude.


That's it.

My mom's questions could become easier with a "Dude" preface.

"Did we go down to the dining room for lunch?" "Duuuude. Let's go get some apple juice."

"Did I know you were visiting today?" "Oh, wow, man. I didn't know you were going to be here."

A little stoner talk could ease the tension.

Laughter Is Pretty Good Medicine

I'm not being disrespectful. But humor has always been how I cope with tough situations.

I'm pretty sure my mom would have called this "foolish talk." She didn't have a Stoned College Roommate when she went to teachers college in the late 1930s.


But it also would have made her chuckle.

Truth is, these visits with Mom were heartbreaking. On the way to her apartment, I'd drive past her old house and expect her sitting in her gold rocker, looking out the picture window and watching for my car (or anybody's car — in a small town you know them all).

I'd see the velvety purple blossoms of the clematis on the sturdy chain-link trellis in front of her house. Still strong, still blooming, while the woman who was so proud of it was withering a few blocks away.

Buck up. Drive on. Mom was never one for sentimentality.

No Laughing Matter

"Dude" philosophy didn't always work. There are no Cheech and Chong comments that can soften the experience of standing in the adult diaper aisle at Target, shopping for your mom. There's nothing to do but pinch your lips so you don't scream at the shoppers with their carts piled cheerfully with toilet paper and kitty litter.

As her social filter faded with her memories, Mom would speak her mind. One time, when I headed out on a bicycle ride, she told me I looked six months pregnant in my bike jersey and it was probably because I drank too much beer.

I tenderized that truth: "Dude, I like that bike shirt. Did it shrink?"

A few months into her stay at the assisted living facility, we sold her car. She likely couldn't find her way to the parking garage in another wing, but just in case, we'd considered a Sound of Music nuns-fix-the-Nazis modification for the engine. Instead, we sold the beige Buick.

One day, she asked me about her car. I reminded her that my boss had bought it.

"I don't think I like that very much," she said. Her look was so disappointed that "Dude, where's my car?" barely softened my sadness.

Often at the end of a visit, Mom would grow tired of my growing impatience. She'd swivel her gold rocker and face another direction.

That was my cue.

Later, Dude.

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Kathy Berdan has been an journalist for more than 35 years. Her work appears regularly in the Pioneer Press, where she is the arts and entertainment team leader. Read More
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