The 100th birthday party is barreling toward us. Eleven days. Over the past month, I’ve touched nearly every (unsorted, unlabeled) photograph in the house at least twice (not the slides, not going there) choosing a representative sample of 100 years of living, scanning and printing them, mounting them on foam board.
Mama: There aren’t going to be pictures, are there?
Me: There are!
Mama: People usually do that for a funeral.
Me: There won’t be anyone left alive to see them by the time you die.
Mama: You are going to too much trouble…Did you find the one of me on Mt. Pisgah? How about the one…
For someone who doesn’t want a fuss made, too many people invited, and no speeches, she sure is stressing over the speech no one told her she needed to make, and wondering if this and that person was invited and what we are having for food. It’s making Rebecca and me crazy. She is completely incapable of just letting us take care of it.
I read an article a while back about staying sane while caring for an elderly parent. (John Shore’s blog.) I’m not sure that’s possible, frankly.
“Accept that things have changed. When a parent starts in any way depending upon their child, their world has turned upside down. Old roles may not apply; old methodologies may not apply; old emotions may not apply. Be prepared to work from—and write—a whole new script.”
The trickiness is the need for the child to be in charge, while letting the parent think they are in charge. My mother is cognitively impaired, but she still mostly has it together, at least in her own mind. She thinks everyone else is crazy.
Our part-time caregiver left a few minutes early one day recently to go to a viewing of a video by dementia care expert Teepa Snow, a video I’ve seen bits of. Mama knew M was going, she told me she expected M was hoping to get help with her own forgetfulness. I rolled my eyes. The next day, Mama asked her how it was.
M: It was really helpful.
Mama: What did you learn?
M: Well, for one thing, the difference between normal aging and abnormal aging.
Mama: What do I have?
M: You have normal aging. “As do I,” she added as an after thought, knowing my mother thinks everyone but she has dementia.
Mama: But I’m 50 years older than you are!
Score one for her, she has the mind of a 50-something! I don’t know if M tried to explain that meant normal for our respective ages, or if she just let it go. The latter, I hope, because it’s pointless. Mama gets something in her head and no amount of explaining will make it go away; and trying to help her understand shuts her down. She doesn’t get angry, she just stops talking. Because she is angry.
“Expect their anger. When you start taking care of your parent, they lose the one thing they’ve always had in relationship to you: authority. That’s not going to be easy for them to give up. Expect them, in one way or another, to lash out about that loss.”
Mama told me this week I buy too much milk, that she will only keep it five days and she doesn’t use it that fast. (So doesn’t she need a back-up? But that would be logical, which she can’t compute.)
Me: That’s crazy and wasteful.
Mama: That’s what I was told a long time ago. And I am not going to drink it!
Me: Then give it to me.
Mama: You will put it in something you cook for me to eat.
Did I mention when I started doing the grocery shopping she told me she liked to have two back-up quarts? I didn’t remind her, nor did I tell her over the past nearly four years she’s been drinking milk that had been opened more than five days. Pointless.
“Protect your buttons. No one in this world knows your emotional buttons like your parent does. Surround those buttons with titanium cases and lock them away where they can’t be found with a Rorschach test. Unless he or she is an extraordinarily loving and mature person, your parent is bound to at least once try to push your buttons, if only to establish their erstwhile dominance over you. Don’t let them do it. You might owe them your care; you don’t owe them your emotional well-being. With your parent, let ‘no buttons for you!’ be your motto.”
We are officially constipated. She took a senna Saturday morning, but only one. I told her she was supposed to take two initially—if only she had consulted me. A conversation ensued about taking more, she promptly mis-remembered my suggestion. While I was cooking dinner, she pushed her walker from the living room through the kitchen, out the other door and down the hall to her bedroom; then back through the kitchen to the living room, and back and forth, giving me a single new instruction about her dinner and bowel needs each time she wandered through.
“Do we have any canned tomatoes?”
“I’ll have some tomato basil soup with my baked potato.”
“I only want a little potato.”
“Do I have any prunes?”
“Give me two prunes with my fruit.”
“I don’t think I should eat any broccoli.”
“I don’t want you to have to go to the garden for spinach.”
She was waiting for me at the door when I returned from the garden with spinach. (Good thing I went, to herd the rabbit out that couldn’t remember how it got in, and spray Liquid Fence around.)
“I didn’t want you to have to go get spinach!”
“Just stop it!” I finally exploded. “You are making me crazy!” She got me.
“Expect nothing emotionally. At the end phase of their life, your parent might open up to you. They also might not; your parent might even more tenaciously cling to their crazy. If, as you care for your aging parent you bond with them in a new and deeper way, of course that’s fantastic. But going into caring for them expecting or even hoping for that to happen is to wade into dangerous waters.”
As my mother reaches the century mark, I have accepted that my dream for a different relationship with her is not going to happen. At least not in the way we both might have hoped. I have to give up the fight to make her be someone she has never been, while at the same time she is fighting to remain the person she has always been. What I can do now is accept this mother and hold her hand as she crosses her last mountain. And not go crazy.