Dementia, The Slow Disaster
“I can deal with shit.”
I was making dinner. My mother’s aide had called me.
“But not the constipated.”
She went on to tell me about having to put her finger up past “clients’” butts when not even enemas did the trick.
I was flipping burgers. For dinner. I had to feed my family while discussing feces, the phone cradled on my shoulder. The sizzling ground meat were beginning to look a bit less appetizing....
Said-aide minced no words in letting me know how my mother had let loose all over her bathroom floor. And in trying to make me feel better, when I apologized for her having to go through that, she was point-blank: “Dear girl. I would rather clean up shit than stick my fingers where they don’t belong. But do please pick up a package of Depends.”
Depends. Diapers. for my Mom.
When did she become quite this dependent?
Mary Gordon in her novel Circling My Mother, describes her own mother’s descent into agedness and dementia as “the slow disaster.”
Well it is.
The slow disaster.
For my mother, one that commenced with falls that landed her in the emergency room so many times, she got to know every member of the volunteer ambulance team, the Presbyterian Minister, the liquor store owner, even her electrician, who’d only ever been called on to rewire her kitchen lamp and replace her fuse box.
And each of her falls led to a setback; once having completed physical therapy after breaking her hip, she fell again to fracture her pelvis. Then to bruise her ribs. Then to fracture her tailbone.
Over time, these setbacks weakened her, until she no longer had the strength to open the plastic-packaged precooked chickens I’d pick up for her dinners, or the tupperware containers of meals I cooked for her to freeze and heat up in her microwave.
Once even making her own breakfast became too taxing – too many dumped trays and spilled coffee mugs – she had an aide come in mornings.
Then even the microwaving of her dinners became too much – the plates too cumbersome to carry – and the aide came in twice a day. Various aides, who either quit or were fired.
Now the slow disaster has culminated in a full-time aide who lives in her house. Except for the occasional trek to her favorite chair in the sunroom, my mother spends most of her days lying on her bed because she no longer feels as if she’s living in her own home.
“It’s their house, not mine anymore!” she laments, the “they” being, I remind her, just one aide, not an entire Dowton Abbey servant staff.
“Well she feels like many people,” she’ll counter, and I don’t know whether she really thinks her aide is singular or plural. “Going back and forth, back and forth through my room, it's a thruway,” to get to the laundry room where “they” do so much laundry, her washing machine is going to fly apart into a million pieces (What I found out from her aide is that it's actually my mother doing her own laundry).
Except for the sunroom, my mother avoids most other rooms, as “they” are always in her living room on “their” laptops. Venturing into her own kitchen only sets her off: “Look at this chaos!” she can shriek, with a sweeping gesture of an arthritic hand, at the aide’s own appliances, the large intimidating fire-engine red KitchenAid mixer and formidable black juicer that have taken up residence on her butcher block table.
In Circling my Mother, Gordon’s own mother’s slow disaster was spread out over a period of eleven years, until her mother was reduced to a mental shell who sat all day with her face pressed into her hands, her cheeks permanently bruised.
My mother is nowhere near that state, but since having a full-time aide infringing on her space, the memory lapses seem to have become more acute, and she virtually has no short-term memory at all; phone conversations can be boundless, circling back around to the same topic from two minutes previous, about how the tree outside her window had sprouted enormous branches just in the space of a week!
If I dare to counter with the fact that that trees can’t “sprout” entire branches quite so spontaneously, (Never mind in the middle of March), she can be as insistent as she can about the aide doing too many loads of laundry, and it’s better to change the topic to the safest, the weather, or whether or not she needs more birdseed.
On bad days, even safe weather topics are circumvented by the imaginary, of people making a raucous moving her flower pots around outside her bedroom door, in the foyer – I say bad days, because these hallucinations are a new dimension to her dementia, to that slow disaster. A dimension I find particularly heart-wrenching to navigate. She knows there is nobody outside her bedroom door. Still, she hears them. So distinctly, that she can’t resist calling out, “What are you all doing out there?”
Then I am texting her aide to please come into her room and reassure my mother again that there is nobody outside her door.
“But I hear them!” My mother can wail, somewhere between the tearful and the hilarious. “Oh, I am going crazy!”
I usually assure her that she is not.
“Well, of course I am, I’m hearing things! My mind is going, I’m not stupid!”
I just called her doctor to discuss how the “slow disaster” seems to have become accelerated, and her response was that maybe not – maybe it only seems that way to me, because, before my mother had someone there 24/7 to observe her, she was able to hide it. Before this someone who thankfully is there, to assure my mother that there is no one outside her door. But who also must weather my mother’s own changing weather, her mood swings; one day she might be complaining to “them” that she will start to cackle like a chicken if she is fed any more chicken meals, only to turn around the next day, when she’s give a steak instead, to snap, “I only want to eat chicken! Nothing but chicken!”
So with my mother’s own increasingly volatile weather patterns – with trees sprouting branches in March, and imaginary people shuffling plants around – I continue to keep changing course in how we converse. Well, I try to anyway. Desperate now to find out whether the sun is out where she is, because it’s all clouds here.
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