I lost my temper with Mom today, but she doesn’t know it, because I’ve learned to keep these things to myself. So it can be our little secret. Okay?
Here’s how it happened.
Mom believes, every single day, that things have been stolen from her. This is a fairly typical symptom of dementia, and it long ago stopped surprising me. The good news is that most days, nothing is actually missing. She believes a basket of clean laundry has been stolen – she’s absolutely sure of this – but the basket is there in her closet, and the clothes are either in her drawers or in my dryer.
My sister and I don’t point out anymore that she’s wrong. That would be cruel. We validate her feelings: Oh, Mom, that’s awful. You must be so upset. This approach allows her to save face, and us to save our breath. Her reality is reality; there’s no point in arguing.
And when you think about it, people with dementia are experiencing loss. My insightful sister pointed out years ago that the missing laundry is a metaphor. Mom is missing something: not clothing, but something equally personal. She’s missing her sense of control, her belief that everything is in place. Parts of her brain have actually been stolen, embezzled by the firm of Plaque and Tangle, LLC.
There are days, however, when actual physical items disappear: usually her hearing aid, glasses, or room key. I keep spares of all three, because these are not things she can easily do without. After angrily denouncing the staff of her assisted living for stealing her belongings, she agrees to use the spare. And here’s the kicker: within a few days, the missing item turns up. I go to visit and see that the original hearing aid is in her ear, she’s wearing her regular glasses, or the key is in its accustomed basket on the bookcase. I do a little sleuthing to recover the back-up item, and whisk it away to my house. Mom never once says – or even realizes – that everything’s back to normal.
You see what’s happening, right? She’s hiding things. This, too, is typical of dementia. She probably puts these crucial items someplace safe, someplace where a thief won’t find them, and then loses track of them herself. Or, more infuriating, she may actually hide them in order to test us. Will we believe her when she says they’ve been stolen? Will we take her seriously? Or will we dismiss her as a crazy old woman?
I don’t believe for a minute that Mom is doing this consciously, but I think she might be doing it. As surely as a three-year-old with icing on her chin will deny eating the last cupcake, an 89-year-old with dementia will do whatever it takes to maintain her dignity. The difference is that you can teach a three-year-old that her dishonesty has consequences. The person this far into dementia can’t make that connection (though I will argue passionately that she can still do many other things well). So you have to roll with her fiction. If you want to live peacefully, there is no other choice.
A couple of days ago Mom’s key was missing. Stolen! Taken from her apartment on a basket of clean laundry! And the management refused to make her a new key! The whole spiel. Wow, I consoled, that’s awful. You must be so upset. I brought her over to my house for a truly wonderful visit: we had tea, looked at books, sang songs. When I took her home, I slipped the back-up key, on its bright, plastic-daisy ring, into the pocket of her walker, trusting that within a week or so the old key would turn up.
Sure enough, there it was today in her pocket. The missing key. The stolen property. The loot. Less than forty-eight hours after the crime.
I found the spare key and quietly slipped it into my purse. And for some reason, maybe the slight cold I’m fighting off, I lost my temper. No-one noticed; it was quick, and it all happened inside my head. But it happened. You devil, I thought. You had that key all along. Why do you do this?
There’s no answer. She does it because she has dementia. It was a good reminder of how frustrating this is, how angry I used to be all the time, how hard it must be for people who never get a break from caregiving. How important it is to step back, rest, breathe. Laugh.
Perspective is everything. Usually mine is pretty good. But some days . . . some days it gets hijacked. Stolen. Some days, my good attitude goes out on basket of clean laundry. Thank goodness it tends to show back up, exactly where I left it — if only I can remember where that is.