Recently, my 87-year-old mother became belligerent with one of her caregivers. It seems the caregiver tried to talk Mom out of visiting her mother, who’s been dead since 1982.
Swear words were hurled; medications administered.
We’ve come a long way since the time two years ago when my mother literally tried to hit and bite one of my sisters for suggesting we get rid of some old clothing. That was when it dawned on us that our mother needed drugs.
Sometimes Mom is merely confused. She gathers up all her shoes in preparation for “moving,” but has no idea where she might be going. Or she insists she’s living in her parents’ apartment from a bygone decade in New York. Or she’s relieved that “they finally caught the guy who’s responsible for that awful business,” as if I’m supposed to know what that means.
But it’s when my mother is agitated and aggressive that I find I’m really learning something. No matter how personal the attack, the caregivers don’t wonder whether Mom means it or why. They don’t fret about the unique psychology behind her accusations. These lovely women comfort and medicate her, and start preparing dinner.
Many cognitively impaired people resent the loss of control that goes with needing care; the fact that they can’t be alone, or go “home,” or phone a dead person, makes them angry. So it’s logical that Mom’s caregivers would view her occasional outbursts, and even physical acting-out, as routine manifestations of dementia.
The truth is, my mother has had lifelong difficulty controlling her impulses and an abiding need to assign blame. As a child, I couldn’t afford to see these qualities in her; in my mind, my father was the identified lunatic. I couldn’t face the fact that my mother was unstable, indeed terrifying, in her own right. It took me a long time to metabolize that.
Of course, even when grown—and even in families with relatively healthy histories—children can’t be as detached from their elderly parents as outside caregivers. There’s just too much baggage. Still, I can’t help wondering: what if I’d looked upon my mother as cognitively impaired all along? What if her attacks had made me fantasize about pharmaceutical intervention instead of compelling me to interpret, spin, analyze?
Asking these questions has changed things for me.
“What guy did they catch, Mom?” I probe, sitting across from her at the kitchen table.
“The guy who did it.” She pauses, confused. “That terrible thing in South America.”
I swallow. “Mom, are you talking about the earthquake in Chile?” You see, even natural disasters need to be blamed on someone.
She looks sheepish.
“Mom, people don’t cause earthquakes,” I tell her gently, then can’t resist throwing in, “with the possible exception of my father.”
She gets the joke, gives an appreciative laugh. We have that genuine shared moment between us, after which she begins telling me about the new clothes her mother just bought her.
Published in The Piedmont Post, March 24, 2010