When a Loved One Has Dementia: My Personal Experience

I am not one to cry in public. But I did today, perched at Caribou Coffee, trying to do some work. The only thing I can say I accomplished is that I didn’t break down in big, howling sobs. But I wanted to.

What set me into weeping mode? A call from my 74-year-old mother. I could tell from the tone of her voice she wasn’t in a good mood. When she accused me of stealing paper towels from her apartment, my fears were confirmed.

You see, my mother is starting to go through dementia. I’ve tried to get her in for more thorough checkups, but she cancels whatever appointment I set for her or she refuses to go. Reading about Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia, I suspect she’s in a moderate stage of it. She’s fairly functional, can still balance her checkbook and whatnot.

There are days, however — like today — where she turns, for lack of a better comparison, positively bipolar. She’ll vacillate between happy-jolly to helpless and confused and then morphs into an angry old woman who thinks the most bizarre things. That last stage is the worst. If she’s happy, then it’s all good. If she’s helpless, I can at least feel useful by carrying her groceries or taking out her trash. But when she’s the angry woman, watch out. There’s no reasoning with her then.

I mean, how do you explain that it makes no sense to steal paper towels? I can easily enough grab a pack at the Walgreens up the street or the CVS around the corner. Plus, I like to shop, so why would I deprive myself of a drugstore visit where I can look for makeup deals or a new nail polish? Puh-lease. You really don’t know me.

When she’s paranoid-angry mom, she obviously doesn’t. Am I perfect? Hell no. I could call her more. Help her out more in many ways. But when I’m dealing with an alternate reality where I don’t know the rules, what can I do? I try to cut the conversation short and move on, and hope tomorrow will be better, that happy mom will be back.

As she gets older, though, I know I’ll lose more of her. Sure the body will be there, albeit more withered and a bit shorter and shrunken, but her mind and her memories and perceptions? I don’t know what’s left, or what will leave next.

The good days give false hope, making me secretly wish the bad days were a phase. (Is that how we cope? By forgetting or fuzzing out the bad memories?)

One day it’s all great, and the next day she’s angry at everything I do. On the good days I’m inclined to believe it’s all a mirage, and the bad will fade away.

Yet these demented dementia days, I am coming to reluctantly believe, will continue. They always remind me that she is fading away and there’s not much I can do except hope. Hope for another happier day. Hope to make her happy. Hope the doctor has something to help. Hope to learn more about his horrible condition. And, of course, hope to not completely lose it. Wherever I am.

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