Not Dealing with Dementia


June and Ward Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley and...

June and Ward Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Television moms and dads are kind, generous, clean, independent, and a source of wisdom. Real life moms and dads can be mean, self-centered, critical, and looking for a handout.  Such is the cards some children are dealt.



Dementia (Photo credit: Fulla T)

These abusive moms and dads don’t miraculously turn into saints as they age, either. Most of the time the dysfunctional behavior they’ve exhibited worsens, rather than improves, as they age. If they’ve abused drugs, alcohol, or neglected their health, they may get much worse.


What to do when bad mom or bad dad (or both) are no longer functioning well at home alone? I don’t mean the not able to shovel out their driveway or lift the air conditioner out of the window type problems. I mean when they think strangers are coming in through the drainpipes and they think one of the intruders stole their gun. That scary not functioning well may be dementia.


Dementia is a broad term used to describe difficulties in the areas of language, judgment, behavior, thinking, and memory. Some causes of dementia, such as metabolic disorders and tumors, can be reversed. Other causes of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can only be slowed down, not cured. Repeat, not cured.  Pay careful attention to the part of the happy pharmaceutical commercials that caution,  “All patients will get worse over time, even if they take wondrous dementia drug.”


If you’ve had a great relationship with your parents, filled with mutual respect and assistance, it’s easy to say you’ll do whatever it takes to keep mom and dad safe. Even if it means moving them out of the home they’ve lived in for the last thirty years. Even if it means hiring someone to stay with them so they don’t burn the house down. Even if it means hiding the car or car keys to prevent them from driving to their favorite store that went out of business twenty years ago. Even if it means taking time off from work to accompany them to doctor’s appointments or leaving work early to rush home to deal with emergencies.


But if you haven’t had a great relationship with your parent, maybe haven’t even talked to them in five, ten, fifteen, or twenty plus years, what’s your responsibility when the neighbors start calling with their concerns? Do you forget the past and hope they’ll become nice? Put on your martyr uniform and hope for the best? Make an anonymous call to Elder Services and wash your hands of it?


There is no easy answer to these questions. Letting your conscience be your guide doesn’t mitigate the guilt that comes with the decision to keep your distance from a demented parent. If you decide to re-engage with the parent, there will still be the resentment that comes with putting your own life on hold to care for a parent who never cared for you. It’s an intensely personal decision that each adult child must wrestle with and decide based on all of the myriad considerations and individual details of their life. If you do decide to ride to the rescue, don’t expect the parent to be grateful for your efforts. Age doesn’t make people any less dick-ish, nor does dementia.


As someone who has wrestled with this issue, rest assured I don’t take my abandonment of my parent lightly. There’s a better than average chance that I am the best suited of my siblings for understanding and navigating the complexities of having someone declared incapable of making decisions to pave the way for admission to a nursing home. Not just because I’m a nurse, but also because I’m the oldest. Unfortunately I can’t forget or forgive the toxic parent-child relationship that ultimately ended with my decision to stop speaking to my parent over twenty years ago. I can’t let that go, even though part of me says it’s my duty and part of me feels incredibly guilty that I can’t caretake this person who can no longer caretake themselves.


I won’t deny that seeing my parent in their current state, even from a distance without saying a word or them being aware of my presence, breaks my heart. I wish I could find it within myself to soften, bend, and do what some would insist is the right thing. But I can’t.


And as much as I salute those who can, I acknowledge that there are those of us who can’t. Age and infirmity doesn’t turn a toxic parent into a saint, it only turns them into a old, sick toxic parent. Don’t judge me for turning my back.  It’s like they say when you fly, if the oxygen mask drops down, you have to put it on yourself before you can help someone else. Unfortunately my parent has demonstrated that they would suck up all the oxygen in my world if they could. As bad as I feel about their condition, I won’t let them.

Day 3: flight to Yazd - inflight safety card

Day 3: flight to Yazd – inflight safety card (Photo credit: birdfarm)


Toilet Paper and the Not Quite Empty Nest

English: Toilet paper, orientation "over&...

English: Toilet paper, orientation “over” (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Correct placement of roll.

The Christmas holiday has bestowed the gift of my adult children at home for a week as well as two additional dogs and a cat. Yes, it’s a little chaotic and crazy here.

My mother always says that fish and house guests stink after three days. I’m unsure if it is a cautionary tale meant to keep your house cold or to ensure there’s adequate Febreeze, but so far the stench has been minimal. Other than discovering one of my dogs is allergic to one of my daughter’s dogs and that when everyone in my family is in front of the wood stove for a picture, the wood stove pipe will spontaneously disconnect from the chimney, things have been surprisingly pleasant.

Except for the toilet paper.

English: Toilet paper, orientation "under...

English: Toilet paper, orientation “under” (Photo credit: Wikipedia). So incorrect it hurts me to look at it.

There is a right way to put on the toilet paper roll and a wrong way. You would think these two children that I raised would know this. In our house, the toilet paper roll has always unfurled on the front. Always. Trust me, anytime a visitor or passing toilet user has made the mistake of loading it backwards, I’ve promptly remedied the mistake. My lifelong dedication to this principle is unwavering.

Why then, does my youngest daughter replace the toilet paper backwards? Why would she think that dangling the end of the roll down the back of the holder is acceptable? Has she learned nothing from me all these years?

Of course my mother always told me to never go outside with wet hair or I’d catch a cold, and I do that all the time.  She also cautioned me against putting ice in red wine, but damn it, I like my red wine chilled.  My grandmother told me never to put hot meat on a cold plate or it would be shocked into toughness. I ignore that on a regular basis, too. But all of their recommendations were based on superstition, and the correct way to hang toilet paper is based on common sense and science.

Isn’t it?

And, not only that, but I forgive my children for so many other things. I don’t mind when they don’t squeegee the shower walls after bathing. I clean the hairbrushes without complaint (though wonder which one of them left gray hairs in there). I cringe inside, but shut my mouth, about the half filled beverage glasses left on side tables and the carelessly kicked-off shoes that create a mine field near the front door. I forgive so much, but, toilet paper? I suspect even Jesus would have a problem with that.

In case you’re curious, let me assure you, as a hostess, I am top notch. Their favorite meals (three bean chili, my special turkey stuffing, bread bowls) are consumed with satisfaction. The house is kept tidy and clean, in spite of four dogs and a cat. My television remains tuned to shows I would never watch (Jersey Shore, My Big Fat Gypsy American Wedding, and Catfish to name a few). I provide adequate outlets for their myriad electronic appliances. My car? Please, take it. It’s clean, maintained, and full of gas. All that I provide seems sufficient to ensure a guest would have no problem complying with my one, small request to put the damn toilet paper in the holder correctly!

Let me take one deep breath to center myself.

Okay. In their defense, they have shoveled snow, washed clothes, rinsed dishes, and even fed my allergic dog the 18 pills he must now take daily. The fact that one daughter, in an attempt to entice my dog to chew his fish oil gel cap, bit into the capsule herself and ended up with a face full of fish oil is a Christmas memory I’ll savor. Their thoughtful Christmas gifts (including an Ipod adapter for my car and a hot spot for the houseboat) illustrated how well they know me and my needs. Waking up to them shuffling around the house like zombies as they prepare their morning cups of coffee brings back memories of college breaks and the remembered happiness of having them here, tempered with the relief of knowing they would leave.

And, even though fish and house guests may stink after three days, the emptiness of my children’s leaving will last for many more. For a week, we dance around trying to get this new relationship right. We bicker, and pick at each other, and roll our eyes. We form and reform alliances over movies and music. We hide our resentment and disappointment. Then we hug it out and whisper i love you’s and i miss you’s and i wish you didn’t have to leave so soon. But, that’s what happens when children grow up.

Someday they’ll have families of their own. They’ll create their own holiday traditions and, I hope, I’ll have a place in them. Each holiday reminds me that this will always be their childhood home, but it isn’t the place they call home.  It reminds me that my time for making their rules has ended and now they make their own, and if that includes putting the toilet paper in backwards, there’s nothing I can do about it because I can’t turn back time. I can only turn around the toilet paper.

Empty Nests

Empty Nests (Photo credit: Sterlic)