Tales from the Manor: The Brain on Dementia

The brain is an amazing thing. When it works right. Equally fascinating when it doesn’t. That dementia manifests in so many directions is a testament to its complex beauty.

My mother’s brand has been subtle, unrecognizable to the uninitiated. But it is becoming less so, at least if the listener sticks around long enough to hear various iterations of the same story within a few minutes, or is armed with knowledge of the “real story.”

We keep a small notebook in her room for guests to make notes in so we know the real story. Sometimes it prevents my sister and me from going on the attack against transgressions that didn’t really happen or to know that Mama was remembering something from a week ago, not that day.

Yesterday at lunchtime she tells me her private aide had just gotten her settled for a nap when the Manor aide got her up for lunch.

“But, Michelle left at 9:30,” I protest, like it matters, “you would have been in bed for 2-½ hours.”

Sometimes when that happens, she decides it was the bath aide who settled her in bed. (Or maybe, I think, since this declaration happens pretty much every day, the whole thing is an old story.)

“Oh,” she says, “maybe I fell asleep after all.”

That was one of the better outcomes to my ridiculous persistence in pointing out her indiscrepancies. She admitted to not getting the facts straight, plus to having gone to sleep. She likes to insist she doesn’t sleep during the day. Double bonus points.


A few days ago Mama asks me to bring her a book from the house. Of course first she has to describe it detail: what it is about, what the cover looks like, where I can find it. I’ve come, finally, to accept the excess information and respond, “Okay.”

The book she wants, for what reason I don’t know and I guess it doesn’t matter, is “The Cheerful Cherub.” (Interestingly, I wrote about this volume exactly four years ago, during the last winter Olympics. Now, on the eve of opening ceremonies, it has come up again. As I read the old post I see how much has changed…and how much has not.)

“There are two of them,” she says, describing the thick red volume and the thin one again.

“Which one do you want?” I ask with a sigh. I had already said goodbye to her when this conversation began.

“Just the bigger red one for now,” she says.

I take the book to her the next day, telling her where I am putting it.


Last Saturday the private aide who only comes for a couple hours a week told her a mutual friend has been struggling with depression. Rebecca, Michelle, and I have long since learned not to say anything that can possibly be blown out of all proportion and have ramifications for days/weeks/months to come. (Though Mama can blow most anything out of proportion.) This qualified.

Every day since then she has asked me if I have talked to K. “I don’t communicate with her,” I keep telling her. She tells me again what J told her. Yesterday, when she asks me yet again, I say, “You have GOT to let that go! If it is a serious problem, she’s probably under a doctor’s care and on medication. Lots of people have depression! You do NOT need to take this on!”

“She’s not taking her medication!” she says.

“You don’t know that!” I say. Maybe I raised my voice a little bit.

“J told me she wasn’t!” she says firmly.

“That is hearsay,” I say, “rumor! You do not know the story, and it’s not our concern. J should not have told you that.” If she even did tell her.

She starts to cry. Oh for gawd sake, I think.

“I have known K since she was a little girl,” she sobs. “She’s had such a hard life! (which she proceeds to tell me all about). And now this. I’m just so worried about her!”

“Well, you don’t know the story,” I say. “You need to try to let it go.” My mother has had untreated depression her whole life; but I don’t bring that up.

She puts her hand, then, on the Cheerful Cherub volume. “What’s this?” she asks.

“It’s your Cheerful Cherub book,” I say, happy to change the subject.

“Where is the other one?” she asks, bouncing her hand around on the table.

“You told me just to bring this one,” I say.

“I told you to bring both of them!” she says.

“I will bring it,” I say, sighing and shaking my head; then breaking the rule not to point out her cognitive lapses, say, “but you said just to bring the red one.”

“I need them both!” she fairly shouts, “and I told you that!” I have had it. My chest is tight from having to contain my stomach which has become upwardly mobile when my contracting gut pushes it there.

“I NEED FOR YOU TO STOP CALLING ME A LIAR!” I shout back. “I AM SICK OF IT!”

“I’m not calling you a liar, Gretchen, but I need both of them. The red one is too heavy for me to take to the dining room.”

This, for me, is the most difficult aspect of my mother’s dementia. If she would just recognize that she forgets and trust others to hold her memory for her, it would be so much better. And I truly believe she is capable of that, but she will not let go of control. And, apparently, neither will I.

“I’ll bring it next time,” I say. “Why do you need it in the dining room?” Curiosity trumps discretion.

“So we can read them aloud while we’re waiting—sometimes for 15 minutes!—for our meal to come. Maybe have a chuckle.”

I don’t point out that she can’t see to read them, and her table mate can’t speak loudly enough for Mama to hear. Who, exactly, is going to read them?


Last night, just as I sit down to eat, Mama calls. She cheerfully tells me she was attacked in the dining room that evening. That she asked an aide to call me and tell me what happened because she knew I wouldn’t believe her. That I always say she must have dreamed things. This probably explains her cheerful telling: I won’t be able to dispute the accuracy of her story. She’s got me dead to rights.

I talk to the aide. One of the residents had tried to guide Mama to her chair. The resident who usually helps her came to help too. In a “discussion” of who should help her, resident one “grabbed” her arm and “yanked it,” according to Mama. I’m curious how this happened, since the resident also uses a walker and is tethered to it by an oxygen tank. The resident feels terrible about it and is very sorry. Mama thinks she needs to lock her door in case the resident comes looking for her. Mama will be talking about “the attack” and her sore arm for months, and blaming all future ills on it. An incident report is being filed.


Meanwhile, my sweet Elliot turned four yesterday! My daughter, in a hilarious Facebook post about bedtime stalling techniques used by small children, reported a recent one at their house:

Elliot came out of his room saying he needed to throw up. I asked if his tummy hurt.”

‘Yeah, I think I ate too much candy.’

‘You haven’t had any candy today.’

‘But at some time maybe I did.’

He made some fake barfing noise and said he felt better.”

We call it imagination at one end of the age spectrum and dementia at the other.

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Elliot and his Nana-great.

 

 

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