Most days of the year, we are their memory. We remind them of what has just happened, what will happen in five minutes, and what occurred long ago. But on certain magical occasions, special cues can take them quickly from today’s struggle to yesterday’s joys
Holidays can be difficult. Sadness mixes with the added stress of preparing for visits or traveling to religious services. Still, these occasions remind us of the power that ritual brings to our lives. When we sing hymns or holiday songs and eat special foods used for annual celebrations, we find strange opportunities that can wake our loved ones to moments of bliss.
My mom always followed a healthy diet, though she never hid her taste for sweets. We try to keep her on the straight and narrow 99% of the time. But when Easter rolls around, she enjoys pleasures that elude her most of the time. Her magic carpet comes in the form of peanut butter eggs. This is a treat she always relished at the end of Lent. It marked the passage from solemn winter reflections to spring time joy. While most other tricks fail now, this one still works. She smells the peanut butter, slowly tastes the chocolate, and smiles with delight. You can see her mind shifting to a time and place where she is totally happy.
Mom also made sure that her children would be susceptible to the same spell. Every year she put these delicious eggs in our Easter baskets. I guess I’d better amend my living will: “In the event of extreme memory loss, please administer peanut butter eggs.”
The grinding of teeth had ceased for a month. Mom’s disposition was cheerful and she seemed joyfully alert. Then my sister mentioned she was going on vacation for a week. Suddenly everything changed.
Between the Pond and the Woods
Our mom has always been a very sensitive person. Long before she was diagnosed with dementia, she was deeply influenced by the emotional states of people around her. That trait became more pronounced as her disease progressed. The idea of being left behind by someone she loves now prompts great distress. Her speech is very limited, so she can’t quite express this. But the grinding, the lethargy, the disorientation all increased at exactly the same time that one caregiving daughter left for a well-deserved break.
This scenario might have been easier for my mom if she hadn’t brainwashed us to always tell the truth. Medical professionals do not disapprove of engaging in “therapeutic lying”. Dr. Charles Atkins, describes this practice as the equivalent of telling a white lie “in the interest of helping or soothing” a person with dementia. Since my mom’s understanding of time and circumstance is already very distorted, a “white lie” about my sister’s absence might have reduced the anxiety she seems to be feeling.
Of course, this is just my interpretation of things. Who really knows what she’s going through? Trying to understand the way my mother sees the world is a bit like imagining how a Martian feels on a visit to Earth. I have no accurate barometer for interpreting Mom’s experience because dementia has made her perceptions so different from my own.
My response to this and all crises is to employ the usual tools for calming her. Hugs, quiet soothing statements, stroking her back. These things settle her down. I’m hoping that soon she’ll forget the whole vacation business. Yet often it seems that the ideas I want her to forget are the only ones she retains. Can’t win. Must try anyway.