Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The heartbreak of dementia

I am participating in the
Tuesday Slice of Life.
All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day.
A big thank you to Two Writing Teachers for providing this unique opportunity
for teacher-writers to share and reflect.

On a recent visit, Mom was in a sour, cranky mood at our arrival, and Dad warned me to stay away from her.  "She's in an impossible mood," he declared. I smiled, remained pleasant, and set about making a fun little lunch for us -  getting out the placemats and the napkins, preparing sub sandwiches, some potato chips, and even a splash of "Fresca" for drink. Nothing fancy, but, welcomed favorites. I tried to entice Mom to the table, but she simply stared at me blankly or responded angrily ("NO!") to any question I asked. Finally, I asked cheerily, "What about Fresca? Would you enjoy a glass of cold Fresca? I remember how much you love this!" and she sneered at me and said bluntly, with vigor, "Run along!"

I had to turn my back to her so that she wouldn't see me laughing. Both the caregiver and I got a chuckle out of that. My father, however, did not. "Why does she speak like that!?" he demanded, "That is so rude!"

I suggested that we simply ignore her for the time being and enjoy the lunch. The caregiver took her to the bathroom to wash her hands (before the lunch which she declared she didn't want!), and I suspected that once she came out of the bathroom, she would emerge a new woman with the whole incident forgotten. Sure enough, when she came out, a much more pleasant person was inhabiting her skin. "Oh my! Turkey sandwiches! That sounds delicious!," she declared when she saw us seated at the  table. She sat down with us and began to settle in happily to the meal.

It's important to act as if the tantrum never happened.

Then the phone rang. The caregiver read the caller ID and called out to my father, "It's Time Warner calling, must be about your cable account, do you want to answer?" Dad stumbled to get out of his chair, saying, "I need to take that call," but he couldn't move quickly enough and he missed it; the call went to voice mail, and he was now the sour, cranky one. He was so frustrated.

Mom and Dad were playing tag team with their moods.

Dad could not settle back into the company of his daughter and son-in-law without resolving the issue first. Lunch for Dad was abruptly over. He wondered what they called about...did he forget to pay the bill? He didn't know how to retrieve the message plus he is hard of hearing and probably couldn't have heard it if he had. His vision is poor, too, so the caregiver read the number back to him, and he dialed it, only to receive the automated message - "our network circuits are busy at this time, please call back." Then began a fruitless series of call backs by Dad, with increasing anger at every repetition of the automated message. I suggested, "Dad, they were probably just calling to sell you a fancier package...just an ad, really, " but he is convinced his account is in arrears. He barks at me - "I bet I forgot to pay the bill! Your mother cannot live without the TV!" (This is funny to me, because it is he who cannot live without the TV, but I do not show any amusement on my face, only patience and understanding.)

Honestly, he tries to call the company for another 30 minutes. It is very painful to watch.

His lunch was forgotten.

What is so sad is that he can no longer discern that this phone call is really not a problem at all. Annoying, yes...but put it aside and chat with your daughter, enjoy their company. Take care of the issue at some other point in time; better yet, let them call back.

My mother, age 88, has full dementia - no knowledge of who I am, no memory of times we shared, no ability to converse anymore. My father, also 88, has Parkinson's - and, sadly, this disease is coupled with the possibility of dementia...he is slowly growing into the same type of mental hell. Honestly, I think it is worse for him, because he is at that place where dementia is beckoning - he is painfully aware of his memory slipping, becoming very anxious at times, beginning to repeat questions over and over, less sure of his short-term memory.

They are in the very best of living arrangements, under these circumstances - living in their own independent home ("cottage") within a retirement community, with a full time caregiver.

On this visit, I see how challenging life is for Dad now. He is no longer able to keep facts and dates straight, no longer sure what needs doing. He was not going to accept any intervention from me and yet he is no longer sure what he has done or not done. He was going to resolve this himself, he was in charge, and yet the solution is just beyond his grasp. There's the catch-22 - he won't hand it over, nor will he solve it himself.

This is the raw pain of aging, the raw pain of short term memory loss, the raw pain of losing control and independence.

It's difficult for all of us.


  1. Thank you so much for writing. My parents are entering these hard times, not dementia diagnosed but their memories play tricks, slip and leave them frustrated. It is a difficult time and you show and share that so eloquently.

    1. Thank you! It is hard to see our parents slip, and our roles begin to [almost] reverse.

  2. My dad had dementia. Fortunately for us, he got funny. My stern, stiff father laughed at himself and became this funny, smooshy man. We lost him 2 years ago and I wonder, if he'd lived longer, would he have forgotten us and become cantankerous and difficult? It is such a terrible disease.

    1. My Mom has been far more pleasant with dementia than I remember her being in my childhood...she has far fewer concerns or worries. But, it is much harder to see my father's faculties slipping. He's a former Navy Admiral, and, wow, he is having a hard time with this horrible life passage.

  3. I'm sorry you have to see this in your parents, Maureen. My husband suffered, as did all of us, from that Parkinson's Lewy Body dementia. I know each is different, and yes, one can only smile, at least inside, and do our best to support. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Yes, it is essential to be patient and loving...which all five of us kids (and our spouses!) are managing to be. Truly, they are blessed to still be living alone together, with full-time caregiver.