Lately it seems that more and more of my friends have aging relatives and parents who are suffering from dementia. Without making light of something so deeply troubling and difficult, I want to share a few stories from the lighter side, from those who are able to laugh at the insanity wreaked by this disease. Because that’s probably the best way to cope with something as bizarre as watching a competent, capable elder literally lose their mind. When I was many years younger, I heard a joke about the up side of Alzheimer’s, which is that you can hide your own Easter eggs. I want to share two true stories that I love about coping with a parent who has dementia.
My friend Peter’s mom had dementia for many years before she passed away. With in-home care helpers, Peter’s father was able to care for Peter’s mom at home. One evening, when Peter was visiting his folks, he and his mom watched a TV show together in the den. Afterward, Peter’s dad said, “I’m going to get Mom ready for bed.” He led Peter’s mom out of the room. A few minutes later, Peter’s mom ran into the den wearing only her slip, and looking wild-eyed. “Who is that man in my bedroom?” she asked Peter. “It’s OK, Mom,” Peter reassured her, “that’s my father – he’s your husband.” His mother replied mischievously, “He’s very handsome, isn’t he?”
I have always found that story deliciously sweet. Peter’s parents were in their 60s at that time and his father had gone bald and was well on his way to becoming an old man. Even so, even without recognizing this man as her husband, looking at this aging man completely objectively, Peter’s mother still found him attractive. Peter’s mother died peacefully at home some years later.
The other story I heard just recently. My friend Hali’s mother has dementia and last year Hali and her sister Jennifer moved their mother into Jennifer’s house. Jennifer hired a married couple as caretakers for her mom and moved them (and their little girl) into her house as well (Jennifer is single with no children of her own, an attorney, with a large house and solid finances). Between the three of them, they are able to provide the mom with good care 24/7. When I saw Jennifer a few weeks ago, she talked about how crazy it is having a parent whose mind is gone. Her mother rarely recognizes her, often mistaking Jennifer for other women in the family long gone (such as the mom’s own mother, Jennifer’s grandmother). When her mom first moved in with her, Jennifer wasn’t as adept at coping with the memory-loss thing. One time when Jennifer walked in the door from work, her mom asked her who she was. Jennifer said, “I’m your daughter, can’t you recognize me?” (Jennifer doesn’t do this anymore.) Her mom didn’t believe her.
“If you’re my daughter,” Jennifer’s mother demanded smugly (as if she could stump this stranger with this question), “then who’s your father?”
Jennifer says she just couldn’t resist replying, “He’s Wilt Chamberlain; and he still speaks very highly of you, Mom.”
Jennifer’s mom laughed her head off. Even though she didn’t recognize Jennifer, she was having a rollicking good time with whoever this woman was. (Apart from the fact that Wilt boasted in his autobiography that he slept with over 20,000 women, Jennifer’s mom greatly admired his skill on the basketball court and even met him in person once.)
Bravo, Jennifer. I guess all you can do after you mourn the loss is laugh at the absurdity.