My mother has Alzheimer’s. At writing this, she is a month short of her 91st birthday and is in relatively good health otherwise. She is in a full care facility and is comfortable there. Visiting her is both difficult and fascinating. Her mind is slowly failing, but the decline is in waves, as is common with this disease. At times she seems clear and interacts easily. However, the majority of the time, she doesn’t remember anyone except me. I can see that it takes her longer and longer to recognize me, and some days not at all. She responds to questions with answers that are not connected to the inquiry and usually with only a couple of words seldom speaking in sentences.
Although most of my mum’s memory is gone, music, especially that of her youth, is still very deep in her. She remembers the words to many songs, and can sing them at the mere mention of the song title. It seems that music is stored in another part of her brain, which the disease has not reached fully.
Humour is similar. I always tell her jokes, so she can laugh. As my mum was born in Scotland, puns along with playfully insulting the English, the Irish and most often the Scottish, all said in a Scottish brogue are the best way to make her laugh. She can even follow a series of jokes on the same subject, even though the logic of puns is usually quite complex and divergent.
I find most interesting is how social behaviour seems to be deeply situated in her brain. My mum has always been reactionary, responding to a question with an answer that seems to fit, until you probe further. She has always saved face. When I was young, everyone outside of my house loved my parents. My parents were considered to be kind, funny and generous. They volunteered for a number of organizations and were well known in the community. At home was a different story. My parents battled constantly with all the rage, vitriol, hostility, and loathing that anyone could possibly manifest. Often it was thrown at my sister and myself as well. Their transition from Jekyll to Hyde was the most difficult, as it could happen in less time than it took to close a door. No one outside of the house knew who my parents truly were.
Having an outside face was important for my mother, although she was probably never consciously aware of it. Throughout her life she would greet someone with a big smile and a wonderful compliment, yet the moment their back was turned she would make a hate-filled remark about them. Still with her advancing Alzheimer’s, she will put on a front for people but scowl or grumble when they are gone.
Having this “face” is probably the deepest thing in her psyche. Somehow even in the depths of this disease her psyche constantly develops new face saving devices. Last year, when I asked my name, she would respond correctly. Six months ago she answered by jokingly saying three Scottish names: MacTavish, McNab, and McKay. Now she responds with “Same name as I have.” She has a number of these face saving phrases, and they come out immediately, whereas a full sentence is difficult in any other conversations.
There probably is good reason for all what I have observed in my mother’s daily life. As learning social behaviour and putting on a “face,” is one of the first things we do as a child. We make faces for our parents, and we mimic and respond to theirs. We respond to foolish things our parents do and our laugh always gets a warm response from our caregivers. Music is often used as a comfort for babies, and we often start to sing well before we use words. Social behaviour, humour and music were the first to be formed in our psyche and the last to go.
I will continue to tell my mum jokes and keep her laughing and when she can’t sing anymore, I will sing for her. Even though my mum terrorized me, and I still am in pain from my childhood. Coming home from visiting her, I am so extremely tired that I often sleep deeply for a couple of hours. It takes a toll. Yet, I have a deep sense of compassion. I will continue to take care of her until she passes. Is this me putting on a “face”?
Thanks to Kia Ull for this link:
© R. Raine-Reusch 2014
5 thoughts on “Face of Alzheimer’s”
No, it’s not a ‘face’ you are putting on. You are providing your mother with unconditional love, as she did to you, even as her behaviour hurt you. Despite the hurtful behaviours, she loved you then, and she loves you still. You will love her, despite her behaviours then. She was doing the best she could. Sometimes, it was not enough. But she was trying her best.
I have a conflicted relationship with my almost 91 year old mother as well. I know she could have done better. I think she knows it too. But there were some things that she did very well. And I know that, in her heart, she always wanted the best for me. I expect yours is the same.
I love the last picture of you with her. She is lucky to have you.
The “face” I see in your picture is loving, happy and looks very good.
I liked reading your thoughts on the disease, they got me thinking and reminded me of this:
Thanks for your comments and this link, which I have added to my post!
I think it’s wonderful that you are doing this, Randy! I missed the passing of both my parents (my Mom at 92 in 2007 and my Dad at 95 in 2008… both had Alzheimers at the end) because of my living overseas. Luckily, siblings were there when they passed, but it’s sort of like I missed out on something very important… also the reality of my own mortality. I hope when my time comes, I’m not forgotten. You are the only one who knows if you are putting on a face. But it’s the face you decide to put on for your mother is the one which shows forgiveness which heals both of you. I’m sure it’s not easy. My Mom could also be difficult and hurtful as well as fun and loving. In retrospect I understand her better… also because she grew up in different times. The more independent I’ve become, the easier it has been to make inner peace with her, even after her passing. You still have the chance to make some peace with yours while she’s still alive. (BTW, I also have some Scottish blood as well as Irish and Welsch on my Mom’s side of the family… what a coincidence!!!)
What I noticed about family and friends with Alzheimers was how, even as cognitive ability drained away, emotional responsiveness intensified. Ben knew that he knew me although he could not recall my name. He was far more sensitive to, and able to pick up on, my feelings than he ever had been before – and he’d known me my entire life. My thought was that somehow he’d grown softer, spongier, more sensitive to the world, feeling-wise, as his intellectual capacity ebbed. Maybe his mind, his mental faculties, had been preoccupied, busy defending him from feelings until that barrier was breached?
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