Relativity

Is there a chance one of your parents might develop dementia? (Hint: the odds of anyone over age 85 developing dementia are almost fifty-fifty. Think about that.)

So there is a chance? Okay, here’s my advice: right now, today, start building solid relationships with the people in your family. You are going to need each other.

Holidays can be difficult, and if you just lived through the Nightmare Before, During and After Christmas, I’m sorry. Relatives do get on each others’ nerves, especially when everyone packs into dear old Aunt Vidalia’s split-level for a long weekend. But those people, those annoying people, are your allies in an upcoming struggle so bewildering it will make a stressful holiday look like a spa retreat. So take a deep breath and tell them you love them.

Now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Yes, I know it’s hard. But try to remember that everyone at this party has a reason to be annoying. Take me, for instance. I was the youngest child, and for most of my life I’ve felt some bizarre need to prove myself to my parents and older siblings (and teachers and bosses and . . . everyone). For years, I have reverted to Baby Sister mode at family events, either keeping a low profile or (heaven help me) going into high gear and trying to control some aspect of the event, just to feel helpful and assert my importance. I still do it sometimes. I can be annoying.

Fortunately, my family loves me anyway.

When Mom turned up with dementia, I found myself coordinating her care with my elder brother and sister, while still believing somewhere in my twisted psyche that they couldn’t possibly see me as an adult. I worried about whether they approved of the decisions – even the suggestions – I was making. Was I being too “helpful”? Or not enough? Was I annoying anyone?  For a while there, finding my new position in the family dynamic was as difficult, in its way, as figuring out how to help Mom.

It would have been exponentially more difficult if we siblings hadn’t built strong relationships long before Mom’s diagnosis. As it stands now, we are a team on a mission, all committed to Mom’s well-being, all willing to take over when another team member burns out. This is what you want.  This is why I advise mending those family fences now.

It doesn’t have to be a big deal. All of my parents’ children are introspective, intellectual types, so we talk through the complexities of the disease and the various models of elder care and how all of this makes us feel. But you don’t have to do that. You just have to get along, so you can make decisions about healthcare and haircuts and laundry and power of attorney.

And so you won’t feel so alone when Mommy or Daddy starts to slip away.

What if you don’t have siblings? Reach out to cousins. We are blessed with a first cousin who visits Mom every single Monday and takes her out for lunch and shopping. (I say “blessed” because this help falls into the category of “godsend”; I don’t know any other vocabulary that comes close to describing her contribution.)

No cousins? Reach out to other relatives. Track down the old folks on your family tree and pay them a call. They’ll be glad to see you and delighted to chat with your loved one, especially if she still knows who they are. (My mom does, and these visits are precious.) An added bonus: your elders will praise you for your devotion, which helps a lot when you’re considering chucking the whole caregiving enterprise and moving to Rio.

Bottom line – you can’t do this alone. And you won’t have to. If you ever have a loved one with dementia, remember: you are surrounded by flawed, imperfect, annoying people – like me – who will help. Get to know them. Trust me . . . you’ll be glad you did.  Thanks to my precious family, I just made it through another holiday season with joy in my heart.

And that, my friend, is the best Christmas present of all.

Siblings, 1961

Siblings, 1961

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