Caring for a parent, Dementia, family caregiver, mother daughter relationship

A Constipated Life

The other day, when I went upstairs to start dinner, Mama was resting in her recliner. I sat down on the sofa beside her, took her hand, and acknowledged that she seemed low that day. In fact, she had seemed low for several days.

“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’m depressed, I guess,” she said. It’s hardly unusual that she is depressed, but it isn’t like her to let those particular words out. I considered it a healthy development.
“Can you say what that’s about?” I asked.
“I can’t do anything.”
“That must be very disheartening,” I agreed. Then, in a stroke of what I thought was genius, hoping to encourage positive talk, I said brightly, “What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?”
She thought a moment, then, with a droop in her mouth and a slight shrug, said, “Organize, I guess.”

I was speechless. Really. Nothing came out of my gaping mouth for a long moment. Finally I said, “I think doing nothing is as good an option as that! You wouldn’t want to go for a walk on a mountain?”
“Not this time of year!” she said, as if it were a ludicrous suggestion.
“What about on your mountain,” I said, not mentioning that season is immaterial when one is dreaming, “your hill that you live on?”
“Oh,” she said, without agreeing that would be nice, cutting off the conversation. So much for dreaming, so much for positivity. I slumped, deflated.

I read stories of family caregivers who feel lucky to have had time with a parent and honored to have been there to care for them. Are there any memoirs by those of us who find the work less than rewarding? Perhaps we are ashamed of ourselves for not being able to “do it better”; maybe we fear judgement. Most of us live by the notion that if we can’t say something nice, say nothing. I assume that’s why no one writes about it, not because I live on an island.

I have been judged by a few, but mostly I judge myself. After nearly three years, shouldn’t I be doing this better? Have I no compassion for what sadness and fear my mother at almost 99 and all but blind and deaf must be experiencing? On a good day, I tell myself I am doing it better than I was three years ago. I’m far from perfect, I wish I were better, but I’m still here walking with her. And I do have compassion. But all the compassion in the world can’t make her younger, can’t restore her eyesight, can’t make her happier, can’t make food taste good, can’t relieve her constipation.

On bad days, I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to make her happy; for not giving over every waking moment to trying. I know I am a good person, so why am I not like those beautiful, caring daughters who write memoirs and post on Facebook about this “amazing opportunity”? So here it is: I believe much (not all) of the difference is not with the caregiver, but rather with the person they care for. Some people bring out the best in us, some challenge us to the quick. My mother is who she has always been; her personality is dementia-magnified, but not altered. And I respond to her the way I always have: with frustration and dismissal. I am working to rise above that dynamic. My work is to fix me, not her.

But back to the inability to dream. I did a quick search of constipation as a behavior, not just a bowel condition, and found what I hypothesized: “Many constipated individuals are likely to be constipated in other areas of their lives. It may be in relationships, finances, fear, anxiety, and even spirituality.” Indeed, when Mama lets go of her poop, she is usually happier for a day or two, letting go of some emotional waste as well. But which constipation comes first?

I wonder if hoarders are constipated: they can’t let it go. Perhaps when Mama said she wanted to “organize,” she meant get rid of stuff, become less constipated in her living. Sadly, organizing to her rarely includes letting go of stuff; she mostly likes to move it around. “Put that over there, I’ll deal with it later,” she has told me when I try to help her. As I look around this house she and my father built 55 years ago, it is clear holding on has long been her MO, and constipation has become a chronic condition.

As I write this, I realize I didn’t meet her where she was when I asked my “what would you do” question. I clung to my expectation of what her response should have been. I needed my brilliant idea, to move her to happy thoughts, to work. I envisioned a conversation to follow, maybe about hikes she took in her Smoky Mountains with my father. Maybe my speechlessness was my own constipation: my own holding on to who I want her to be.

❣ ❣ ❣

FYI: I googled “constipated behavior” and a few days later know-it-all Facebook shared information with me about the proper position to poop. It seems the Tanzanian “choo” (squatting over a hole in the ground) has it right: legs bent with the knees at 90º is not conducive to expulsion. Prop feet on a stool for a 35° angle, the western equivalent of a squat. I wonder if I should share that with Mama.


21 thoughts on “A Constipated Life”

  1. From Regina (posted on FB): “I remain humbled and in awe of the gift you are giving to your mother every day, especially because she can’t see it and doesn’t appreciate it. My journey was in spurts over a decade, never more than a week at a time. I am certain I could not do what you are doing. You are amazing and I hope you are finding moments of appreciation and soothing as you devote your self (space intended) to this cause.”


  2. Gretchen~ From my humble observations…this statement says it all: “Sometimes I feel like I do a far better job of taking care of myself than I do of my mom; but then I acknowledge it’s the only way I can be here. And my being here is the only way she can be here.” Absolutely true. She is very fortunate to have you with her so she can stay in her own home, even with/ altho/ in spite of/ everything. And whether she can admit it to you she must acknowledge that truth in her heart. I applaud you for the way you take care of you–the caregiver. I am grateful you have so many creative interests and outlets…and writing the blog is not only beneficial to you but instructive for us who read your challenging thoughts. As mentioned above, that is such a gift. Keep on keeping on!


  3. Thank you for your honesty. I often think about how I am likely to be the cared-for in the not so far away future. I think about what my personality would be like, “dementia-magnified.” It reminds me that now is the time to face some of my issues before it’s too late.


    1. That was going to be part of this post, but it got too long and I decided it would be my next post! Can we become now who we want to be when we no longer have the capacity to change? Thank you for writing, Margaret.


  4. Sure, go ahead and suggest! Why not! You make a totally and utterly experienced experience, not a superficial one-off. Do you balance the intensity with just handling daily business, itself a monumental task? Compassion is as compassion does, to paraphrase a familiar saying. True?


    1. Maybe I will, Mary Lou 🙂 There is a lot of daily business: paying bills, filing stuff that needs to be thrown out but she wants filed, grocery shopping, refilling her meds/vitamins, helping her remember what she has wrong in her head, secretly helping her new caregiver be successful, running errands she often doesn’t know I run, listening to her breathe over the monitor all night. And on and on. What she says I do is cook dinner and occasionally take her to the doctor. She doesn’t think she’s getting her “money’s worth.” And that’s just the way it is. I thank God for sisters, friends, and blog readers who know there is more to it. You support me. I hope you get your money’s worth. 😘


  5. I wonder if she’s feeling so overwhelmed by all the disorganized stuff, that bringing some order to it sounds more wonderful than anything. There we go–a window into my own life and mind.


    1. She desperately wants to be an organized person, and she is not. I expect living with her organized husband made it hard for her to accept who she is. She can’t see the disorganized stuff now, but still she can’t let it go. Of course, being my father’s daughter, I can hardly stand it, but she won’t let me touch it on her behalf 🙂 as you know.


  6. Hi Gretchen and thanks so much for sharing your journey here. One of the things that resonated with me the most was your recognition that both you and your mom are being the people you have always been, yet you still have the capacity to choose to be different in how you react to her. It seems to me that the “amazing opportunity” you are creating is the chance to try out different reactions for yourself and see how they feel. By sharing your reflections, you are also giving us the chance to think of new ways of reacting in our own relationships – that is a wonderful gift. Holding you with love and compassion, as you continue this journey with your mom. Thank you.


    1. Thank you, Jude. You’re right, I can try out different ways of being. It’s easy to forget that. The beauty is, I can keep trying. There is no failure, only opportunity.

      I wish I could meet all the people who read my blog. To have us all in one room would be so amazing! Maybe one day if you are in the area again, I can at least meet you.


  7. Well, it seems to me, friend, that writing your experiences is helping others to find ways to manage the overwhelm and frustrations. You name the reality, yes, and you validate the feelings others must have, and you name the changes and challenges your mom presents, all of that is so important, you maybe don’t see that because you are in that. Aside from those characteristics of your writing, I see the hiking, the traveling, the garden, the moments that show me life is moving forward, and you express how you are taking care of yourself despite the frustrating times. You bring back good moments from the past as you come across them, and i feel you blend beautifully, and very uniquely, a whole life experience that touches people in all stages of living.


    1. You are such a good friend, Mel. Thank you. Sometimes I feel like I do a far better job of taking care of myself than I do of my mom; but then I acknowledge it’s the only way I can be here. And my being here is the only way she can be here. I hope my honesty about it helps more people than it pisses off. But I guess the latter can stop reading, right? 😘


  8. Maybe when she said she wanted to organize, maybe she was talking about her mind. It must feel rather disorganized in there when you have dementia. You are a wonderful daughter!


    1. I’m quite sure she wasn’t consciously thinking of her mind, but it’s interesting you say that, Susan. I’m reading a book about understanding the communications of the dying, and it talks about how they may talk in code and metaphor. Or something like that. I’ll read it more closely now! Thanks!


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