I remember a day about three and a half years ago, when Mom had been in Atlanta a few months and I was learning how to deal with her dementia. (I still am, but the learning curve was very steep at that point.)
I had taken her somewhere (church? dinner? a park?), and it had been a long day. I was tired. Frustrated. So was she, I suppose. As we walked from the car toward her assisted living, she started reciting with gentle resignation how sad she was about moving away from home. It was a litany I would come to know by heart:
“You girls don’t have time for me. I took my mother for a walk every day, and brought her to my house after church every week for Sunday dinner. But you don’t do those things for me. You have such busy lives . . . .” Et cetera.
On this particular day, my sister was out of town. My brother and his wife were also traveling, and weren’t catching their phone calls. I hadn’t found a support group or counselor. I felt totally alone.
I helped Mom into her living room, and then I let her have it:
“I take you to church every Sunday, and I take you out every day! You don’t remember because you are losing your memory! But I do plenty for you, and so does my sister. Don’t you DARE say we don’t take care of you the way you took care of your mother, because we do!”
That may not be an exact quote (I don’t trust memory anymore), but that’s what I was feeling: hurt, defensive, and furious. And I made sure she knew it.
Did it help?
Oh, hell no.
Maybe it felt good to blow off steam. But Mom’s face turned ashen, and I was quickly overcome with shame and regret. She probably started to cry; I don’t remember. She was horribly upset, because she had made me angry and didn’t know what she’d done. And I was shaking like a leaf, because I’d lost my temper and accomplished nothing.
Fortunately, I was able to leave her in safe hands and go home. I reached my brother and sister within a few hours, and they talked me off the emotional ledge. They understood; they’d been there. And, amazingly, Mom and I got through it. Once I calmed down, I came up with a version of the incident we could both live with: I told her that she hadn’t done a thing to make me mad. I’d just had a bad day and needed to vent. Thanks to her dementia, she didn’t remember exactly what I’d said, only that I’d been angry. So she took the high road:
“Well, honey, I’m your mother. Your feelings are always safe with me.”
Poof! In a little sleight-of-hand illusion called the “therapeutic lie,” Mom became the hero, and peace was restored. She’ll never know how furious I was. She’s long since forgotten the whole thing. But I haven’t. I learned a valuable lesson that day: when dealing with dementia, I’d rather be at peace than be right.
I still get angry. I may never stop being angry at the disease, at what it’s done to my mother, at the gap between what she needs and what our culture currently provides for people like her. I just try not to take my anger out on her. Like me, she’s doing her best to deal with this dementia.
Unlike me, she can’t take a break from it.