When Your Mom Has Dementia

Looking back, I think we all knew mom was losing her memory. There was the time she left four messages in a half-hour on my machine, all saying the same thing. Or the time I found her transfixed by a Mexican TV show even though she doesn’t speak Spanish. Or the time she ordered broccoli soup at a restaurant despite the fact she’d spent her entire life referring to broccoli as “a filthy weed.”

The event that shattered our denial was terrifying. My parents were living in Palm Springs. It was the heart of summer and temperatures exceeded 105 degrees. Mom decided to go for a drive. We still don’t know where she was headed. I received a phone call from my father around 7:00 on a Friday night. He said mom was missing. She’d been gone for several hours and wasn’t answering her cell phone. I could hear the fear in his voice as he asked me what to do.

“Call the police,” I told him.

“What do I say?”

“Tell them your wife is confused, that she has memory issues.”

This was the first time anyone in our family acknowledged the obvious. We’d tried to hide from it. We told ourselves mom was simply getting older, that she was bored or depressed or losing her hearing. The truth was too hard to accept. Mom was slowly slipping away.

Dad finally received a call from mom around 9:30 pm. She had no idea where she was. She’d driven her car into a drainage ditch off the highway and she was stuck. Dad asked if there were any houses or buildings nearby. She saw a small motor home on the edge of the desert. Dad told her to walk to the motor home and knock on the door.

Images of Breaking Bad coursed through my father’s mind. Luckily, the motor home belonged to a retired Latino couple. They invited my mom inside and gave her water and soup. The man took her cell phone and told my dad that mom was okay. The man called Auto Club and the tow truck driver drove mom and her car back home. Somehow she had driven 60 miles from Palm Springs. Only after midnight did my panic-stricken father get to hug my mom again.

The event kicked us all into action. My parents moved back to Los Angeles to be closer to family. We took away mom’s car keys, ordered a Medical ID Bracelet and most importantly, we all pitched in for a caregiver. The results of the neurological tests were inconclusive. Her memory loss might be caused by dementia or Alzheimer’s or simply be a symptom of the myriad pills she took each day. Doctors prescribed a new pill, something called Namenda. All it did was make her dizzy.

Mom was always a force of nature. She was the family fulcrum, the sun around whom we all gravitated. She told dirty jokes, loved people and more than anything, she loved to laugh. When I was in high school she helped me prank my basketball teammate. I invited him home for dinner and the end of the meal, mom brought an itemized bill to the table. My friend laughed but when mom insisted he pay the $15 dinner tab or she’d call police, he grew quite serious. Mom retold the story for years, always thanking me for including her in the joke.

These days mom is quiet most of the time. I try not to remind her that she forgets things. I no longer ask, “What did you do today?” Sometimes she’ll surprise me and recount a conversation she had the previous week. Most days she can’t remember what she had for lunch. Or if she had lunch.

Each family member has a different way of coping. My aunt writes long emails detailing mom’s daily activities. Dad tries to convince all of us that mom is getting better. My brother researches the latest advances in memory treatment while my sister digs up old photos of mom when she was still vibrant.

I attempt to rationalize the situation. I tell myself she’s had a great life. She’s traveled the world, raised a family and made it into her golden years. Everything else is gravy. I’m deluding myself, I realize, but it’s a way to keep myself from despair. At least mom still knows my name. And she smiles when she sees my face. And amazingly, she’s still keeping our family together. Because of her, we call each other every few days, if only to ask how mom is. I like to think this keeps her happy.

Written by

Loren is a writer and woodcut artist based in Los Angeles. He teaches printmaking and creative writing to kids and adults.

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