Crime Scene

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.



33 thoughts on “Crime Scene

  1. So familiar. We go throufh it with the medicines. She swears that I did not give her any medicine all day. After threatening me with evictiob (she lives with me) she storms out and calls the family to tell them how irresponsible I am, that I am trying to put her away…Finally I got an idea. I told her that I jyst get so overwhelmed that I can’t keep up. I make up a sheet every day and ask her to initial each medicine when I give it to her so I can bw sure I am keeping up. Last night she told me that she was afraid she might forget taking her medicine. I told her that we would both be able to check the sign out sheet so it would be fine. She just needed to be reassured and now she isn’t so angry. I have also givwn in and gotten help. Senior Helpers is going to give us both much needed contact with others. I can go out and reclaim some time for me and she isn’t as friggtwned about dependibg on me.

    • THAT IS BRILLIANT!! I always find its easier if I admit to a weakness — I’m tired, or confused, or I just need to “double check” something. It gives us a sense of being in this together, which is so helpful. Best wishes!!

  2. Love the last paragraph! I, too, looked for many a “stolen” item.. My mother just recently finished her earthly journey. How I would love to look for those “lost” items again!

  3. My mother died at age 90 (almost 91) over 20 years ago, after two frustrating years of not being able to take care of herself without help, following a stroke. There was no dementia — just a miserable woman who had been fiercely independent all her life. The arguments, in my case, occurred when she would be so negative about life in general, and would complain about having to go on living, when all her friends had died: “Nobody ever calls. Nobody ever comes.” This was not true, because my brother and I alternated going on weekends, and she had two wonderful caregivers during the week. Finally, I learned to respond, “I can really understand how you would feel that way, Mother.” It didn’t stop the negativity, but it kept both of us from yelling at each other.

    I learn so much from your writing, Carolyn. Many of my friends are on similar journeys with aging parents. I love your creative ways to help your mom feel useful — baking, the quilts, games. Thank you for sharing what has to be a wrenching experience for you and your sister.

  4. Great post and I know just what you mean. Thieves are abound here and I’m in conspiracy with them by letting them take Maureen’s car. I play a game every morning pairing up missing slippers, shoes and socks. Must get hunting to see where the bad guys have stashed the latest hoard of Maureen’s gear.

  5. We experienced that same kind of things w/ Mama. ‘Someone’ came into the house when she went shopping once a week & they stole things. Funny – we found these things as we closed up her house. I have the jewelry that was stolen…
    You just have to roll with it & keep on loving them. It’s not always easy, but you do it anyway. ((((( Hugs )))))

  6. Carolyn, I remember those days with my mom too! Everyone was “taking” her things. You’re doing a wonderful job, a very difficult job at that. I, too, have a blog on Caregiving. Feel free to take a look: God Bless you & your family for all you do for your mother.

  7. You are amazing, patient and kind. I took care of my Mom’s for 10yrs and found her paranoia very hard to deal with. You are very wise.😊

    • I think the paranoia is the worst part. I hate to see Mom unhappy over something that didn’t even happen! But going with her story and validating her reality seem to be the best ways to help her move on, so that’s what we do. I admire you for ten years of caregiving!

  8. Thanks. I needed that. I especially liked the part…”You have to roll with her fiction. If you want to live peacefully, there is no other choice.” My husband lost touch with reality and correcting him always led to problems. He’d say he’d gotten a new car last week, but it’d already been stolen. Or he’d been to California last week for work, even though he hadn’t been to work in three years. I learned to say, “Really?! That’s terrible. We’ll get another one soon.” Or, “Great. How was the trip?”

  9. thank you so much. i have learned so many lessons watching mi mum lose her memory over the last half decade. this is an excellent piece of thought-provoking non-fiction.

  10. Beautifully written, Carolyn, and it shows off your kind heart, which I adore. But, I’d say such a brief “loss of temper” was really just finding a bad temper for a moment. Your good one never went away!

  11. Hi Carolyn. I just discovered your blog via “Welcome to Dementia Land”. You certainly have had many challenges, with both your mom and your mother-in-law. I’m early on the journey with my husband. I’m trying to appreciate life now as it is, knowing that this is the best it will be.

    Thanks for writing and sharing your experiences. I think it helps all of us to know that we can support each other, and that we are not alone.

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