Caring for a parent, conversations, Dementia, Mental health, mother daughter relationship


“Interregnum: discontinuity, hiatus, hiccup, interim, interlude, intermission, gap, interval.”

When I arrive in Mama’s room after lunch Monday, I find her, for once, not asleep in her chair. But she might as well have been, as flat as her affect is. We chat for a bit; or rather I chat, she doesn’t have much to say.

The good news of the day is that Michelle—our longest serving private aide who has had her own interregnums between being queen of everything and persona non gratis—straightened her bed perfectly that morning. I need to tell Mama that Bonnie, the other private aide who will be here on Tuesday and Thursday, is going to wash her sheets. They haven’t been changed in weeks because Mama won’t let Bonnie strip them because “she doesn’t know how to make a bed.” We long ago gave up asking the facility to the job, even though it’s part of what we pay for.

Mama seems unable to answer the simple questions:  flannel sheets? warmer blanket? Tuesday before bath day or Thursday after? Her brain seems to be having even more connection difficulty than usual.

I know she is easily overwhelmed by too many questions. I take them one at a time, allowing pauses that last half a lifetime. She can’t track. Or maybe she is refusing to answer because Bonnie suddenly can’t make the bed right, though she has been doing the task for 18 months.

She keeps trying to change the subject to the hearing aid and ear cleaning one that I don’t want to talk about. I concentrate on engaging “Best of Gretchen,” and remain calm as I tell her multiple times we will talk about that later, but first we need to finish the bed conversation.

A caregiving friend recently sent me a column from the New York Times, “This is How You Pick Up a Phone.” My Best of Gretchen game is not one only I play. The author calls hers “How Good a Person Can I Be?” I lose my game far more often than I win. I know it is cruel to insist that a person incapable of making sense make sense. It is mean to point out that she has already told me something, or that I have already told her something, or that we have had a discussion and come to a decision. And not to point it out is arguably the most difficult challenge I have ever faced. And it has to be done multiple times each and every time I visit.

I win several rounds of the game on Monday, finally making the sheet decision for her. Bonnie will wash the sheets Tuesday morning and I will come at lunch time. While Mama is in the dining room, Bonnie and I will make the bed together. She agrees. I tell her to be thinking about which sheets and blanket she wants, since she can’t decide now. (The next day, I end up making that decision too, it is too much for her.) Then I blow it, I can’t let well enough alone. And I forget, again, she has no sense of humor.

“You are a little obsessive about the bedding, you know,” I say.

“No! I don’t know that, Gretchen,” she snaps back. I mentally slap myself. “You don’t know what it’s like to have to wear this [incontinence] underwear! I wish you would get a waterproof sheet so I wouldn’t have to wear them at night.”

She says it like she has asked me a million times for a waterproof sheet and I have refused. I step back into my game; that’s all you can do when you’ve blown it, start a new round. I don’t say the pants have nothing to do with how the bed is made.

“I can imagine they are very uncomfortable,” I say. “Would you like us to put a pad on the bed and you can try not wearing the pants at night?”

She really does not need to wear them. She has very little problem with incontinence, and never at night to my knowledge. She (eventually) says she would like to try a pad. Rebecca later points out that she will forget she wasn’t going to wear the pants. She will forget because the incontinence pants explosion was really just a diversion from the conversation about Bonnie making her bed.

On Tuesday, Bonnie and I tackle the bedding. She gets the edges of the top sheet, the blanket, the sheet Mama lies on top of for her nap exactly even and overlapping the mattress edge at just the right length. She gets the top edge of the sheet folded over the blanket at the specified three inches only. Michelle could not have done it better. Then she tucks the sheet and blanket under the end of the mattress. Oops. I show her the preferred loose, not tucked. She returns the small tub containing her hearing aid box and tissue to the left of her pillow, the neck pillow in front of it with the talking clock in its crook.

Why is it so hard to be kind? To not point out each and every gap in her brain synapses? As the writer of the New York Times post discovered, it’s so easy a five year old can do it. (I encourage you to read that post, by the way.) Why can’t middle aged daughters manage it? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother topic; but “daughter” is the key word.

Before I left her on Monday, Mama told me she needed cash for the young man from church who comes most weeks and reads the Sunday sermon to her. I told her I would get some. I didn’t tell her I just got her some, that it’s right there in her purse. Tuesday she asks if I brought her cash. I tell her I did. Two more wins for me. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this.

We move on to the hearing aid conversation. She had agreed Monday that I can take the hearing aid to get it cleaned locally and that I can find a local ENT to clean her ears rather than driving to Olympia, which is challenging for both of us. Tuesday the plan is no longer acceptable.

“The hearing aid store will tell me my [two-year-old] aid is worn out and try to sell me a Belltone. And Dr. Kim has my records and anyone else will remove the wax with water and I’ve been told never to let anyone put water in my ears.”

“Fine!” I snap, “I’ll call Olympia and make an appointment! But it might be six weeks before they can get you in!” I manage not to say and it will serve you right, you are so f***ing ridiculous. I try not to slam the door as I leave.

I go home and call the ENT for an appointment. Not six weeks, nine. Tomorrow I’m going to Seattle for a grandkid fix. I leave Rebecca to deal with the ENT issue.

I never hear if the bed was satisfactory. And I never will. On my way out on Tuesday, still doing deep breathing over the ENT tirade, I see Bonnie—who also works in housekeeping for the facility—downstairs. She tells me the Manor wants her for more hours and she is giving us two weeks notice. Just like that, we are back in the space between. I go to my car and cry.



10 thoughts on “Interregnum”

  1. Last week I saw a movie that tore me to shreds and yet I loved it completely. It is “Lady Bird” directed by Greta Gerwig. Some would say it is a coming of age story between a mother and a teenage daughter. But by the end of the story I realized that this “coming of age,” this necessary passage, occurs over and over again in our lives and relationships. The mother was relentlessly judgmental and thoughtlessly cruel to her daughter. I saw myself in the story, and realized how unkind I am to my daughter, always slipping in a correction, shoving her off her feet. Only later did I see the fear that courses through the mother, her rage at the inescapable departure that lies ahead. As hard as it is to be kind to another, it is harder still to be kind to ourselves. Please take good care.


  2. I’m imagining that one of the hardest things is having such a selfless act (caring for your mother’s every need) be received in a thankless way. It isn’t to say you do it for the recognition, but rather, that a little appreciation goes a long way. I can certainly respect that you continue to do the hard things simply because they are the right things. It speaks not only to your endurance but your integrity. Thanks for “keepin’ it real” here ♡


  3. I’m thinking you don’t need to fear sounding disrespectful. It’s such a natural response I’m sure many people find themselves doing the same, and your willingness to be honest about it lets others know they’re not alone and don’t need to beat themselves up for it.


  4. My 99 year old friend tells me he doesn’t like to hear ” I told you that” but it is very hard not to say it. Gretchen you are doing an amazing job with your mom and you are amazing. Have compassion for yourself.❤️


  5. Life is hard in so many areas, but you do a fantastic job with your mom. I don’t think I could do that well…I read the piece about the way to answer the phone, and in awe of that little 5 year old. She is on one of the plains of her Grandmother…Blessings to all!!!


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