Wise Elder

Blessings of Dementia & The Perception of Time

Mom ~ 1940 Jr College Graduation


October 11, 2009    

My mom is 89 and she lives now in a wonderful adult family home with the best of care. Her world is small. I’ve come to realize what a blessing this is for her. She was a respected university music professor in her working years, gifted in showing teachers how to teach music to children. In past years when I visited, her questions were about me and my work. These days I don’t think she remembers what I do and it really doesn’t matter. She’s proud of me “just because”.  Isn’t it funny that all that past striving to be important and valuable in her eyes, just isn’t important anymore.   

I walk in her room. She is lying on her neatly made bed, fully dressed with makeup and lipstick, her gray hair combed. A lifetime of good habits and routines serves her at this stage of her life when her memory is missing. Her eyes light up with delight and surprise when she sees me. I am grateful that she still knows me. I often look at her with a surprised look as though I walked in to the wrong room and I say “OH MY GOSH – you look JUST like my Mom!”  That’s guaranteed to get a giggle out of her and she says “Well I AM  your Mom”! She laughs and giggles in a sweet, almost childlike way. This innocent, delighted part of her has recently reappeared and I wonder how long ago it went in to hiding. Could be 80 years ago, or even more. Humor was not part of her daily life when I was growing up. I don’t think I ever heard her tell a joke and she was never one to participate in games. Now I notice how precious she is when she is giggling, perhaps her lack of capacities allows humor to touch and delight her in the present moment.   

Her world is her familiar sweet room with her neatly made bed, the Bible on the nightstand, pictures of her family nearby, the beautiful inlaid wood pictures she brought back from a sabbatical in Germany ….the pretty lace curtains and the little bird she sees sometimes out on the fence.  She doesn’t seem to wonder much about the outside world, and I’ve come to learn that the kindest thing I can do is come be with her HERE.  It is a struggle for her to go out in the car, and she does not find pleasure in the outside world anymore.  She’s content and she’s happy; in some ways the happiest and most relaxed I’ve ever seen her.   

She’s appreciative of the help from her caregivers, who she calls “my angels”, even though she doesn’t remember their names. She reads the Seattle Times and the Kittitas Daily Record every day and she enjoys it in the moment, even though she has no recollection of what she has read. I’m not sure it would matter if it was a new paper or the same one every day, but I think at some level she feels informed. I see to it that she has new papers every day. It’s what I would want.   

I shopped on her behalf for birthday cards for my two sisters and took them for her to sign. She carefully read each card aloud and said “what a lovely card”.  She then read the cards again, going back over the words and underlining a few….like “who you are”. She may not have cognitive skills, but at some level she knows what’s important.   

Today she looks at me sweetly and in a moment of puzzlement she asks who is older – me or her.  It is MY turn to giggle as I tell her that although I HAVE been getting older, that SHE is still older than I. It’s almost as though time stands still in her world. Perhaps her perception of time is just different now, with no “to-do” lists or tasks to be done. I realize that she does not remember what she looks like.  I wonder about my arrogance, thinking my perception of the world is the “real one”. Perhaps she is the wise one afterall.   

She wrote this on my sister’s birthday card: “Evie tells me I’m older than you are! (Still!) Lots of love from your Old Mom.”   

In past years Mom always wanted me to stay as long as possible…almost as though my time was proof of my love for her. These days it matters not how often I visit or how long I stay. Traditional time has no meaning to her now. I see that short visits are best for her and I can learn an important lesson in a moment.  She is delighted to be with me and content in her world, even when I am not near. I so hope she continues to remember me – at least my face.  

After a lifetime of working hard and being independent, now she’s learning to receive love and support from others.  I’m inclined to believe that maybe when she’s done learning what she came here to learn she’ll be allowed to go – perhaps to fly away in her sleep with a smile of contentment on her face. After a lifetime of teaching other people to sing, she’ll sing forevermore in a choir of angels.  I pray that her angels from this lifetime will move in with me.  

Perhaps one Blessing of Dementia is the opportunity to live life entirely in the present moment.  With no capacity for regret of the past or  worry about the future, life is just the “here and now”.

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