Every day, in different ways, my mom gets a little more childlike.
“You’re my bestest friend and … daughter,” she says to me, the daughter part sounding more and more like an afterthought.
“You’re the only one left,” she says. But I remind her that all of her daughters are still alive, which prompts her to ask who her daughters are. I realize when she says I’m the only one left, she’s not talking about her daughters. She thinks I’m someone from the earliest part of her life — a brother, a sister, a friend. She’s losing her identity as a mother and moving further back into her own childhood. The people and places that populated her world then are what she remembers, what she longs for.
“It’s not so bad here,” she says, referring to the assisted living facility where she now lives. “But it’s nothing like Niagara Falls. I want to go home.”
I’ve done the math, and Niagara Falls hasn’t been her home for almost 60 years. Just before moving into assisted living, she spent over twenty years in a small apartment in New Jersey that she loved. Before that, she raised her children in a New Jersey house where she lived for 36 years. She has a limited recollection of the apartment; she seems to have lost all memory of the house.
There’s so much loss associated with this disease, and my mom knows it. One of her favorite sayings is, “I’m losing it.” I can’t argue with her.
But maybe I don’t have to focus so much on the loss.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent New Yorker article that describes a new approach to dementia care based on the work of Thomas Kitwood, a psychologist who put patients first. He believed “true meeting can occur, and life-giving relationships can grow” if those who care for dementia patients can get beyond their own defenses and anxieties.
My mom is gradually forgetting that she gave birth to me almost 45 years ago, and that troubles me, but these days, there’s more tenderness in our relationship. She’s more carefree and playful, except when she’s sad. Like never before, she seeks out connections with the people around her, even if she can’t remember them five minutes later. We’re closer than we’ve been in 20 years, and close in a healthier way than ever before.
My mom may be losing the person she used to be, but our relationship isn’t lost. It’s changed, and it continues to change. And in some ways, I guess it’s growing.