by Beth Whitman
In actuality, it was more than a year. I’m not sure how much more than a year, but that’s irrelevant.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is a little like living in the movie Groundhog Day. It is the same thing, over and over. There are little shifts, little realizations, little connections made, and sometimes huge acts of desperation and frustration. But every day the reset button is pushed, and you start it all over again.
With my mom, the visible evidence of the reset button was her ritual response to me whenever I did something for her.
“You’re wonderful!” she would say.
Every morning, when I brought orange juice to her and Dad to start the day, Dad would thank me. Mom would look up at me with grateful eyes full of adoration.
“Aren’t you wonderful!”
Later in the day, Mom might misplace her cane. She would be looking around, starting to get perturbed, no longer having the words to just quickly come out and say, “Has anyone seen my cane?”
I can see her getting frustrated, and I can tell from the way she’s searching that she’s looking for her cane. With a quick scan of the room, I spy the end of the cane sticking out from under the chair where she had been sitting earlier. I pick it up and ask, “Is this what you’re looking for?”
“How did you know?” she asks in amazement. “You are so wonderful!”
Despite the huge amount of work and sacrifices I had to make in order to take on the caregiving of Mom and Dad, one of the things that made this time such a “wonderful year” was this quirk of hers.
Saying “You are wonderful.”
Truth be told, my mom always thought I was wonderful. In my teenage years, my mother’s adoration of me was an irritation. In my twenties, I struggled with the feeling that Mom did not truly see me; she seemed to have no awareness of the darkness inside me. The angst of my thirties was based largely on the fear that I was not nearly as wonderful as my mother thought. In my forties, as I started believing that Mom was showing early signs of Alzheimer’s disease (I was the first one in the family to suspect this was happening), I began to have more compassion for her. Behaviors that were once uncomfortable for me as her daughter, like her unflagging adoration, gradually became a thing of connection. When she said “You’re wonderful,” I no longer recoiled, thinking she did not know me. Instead, it became a way for me to more fully recognize her. It allowed me to see my mother more clearly.
Now, in my fifties, it is this very adoration that has made it easier for me to go with the flow. It eases the frustration and monotony of repeatedly answering the same questions, of performing the same rituals, of finding her cane over and over again.
It allows me to embrace the sameness, in the way Bill Murray embraced the sameness of waking up to Sonny & Cher and the report of a coming blizzard. It is the same thing over and over again, but within that sameness, there are myriad moments in which to replay your experience. Moments where you can shift your response, your perspective and, perhaps hardest of all, your perception.
When Mom looks across the room, points up at a shelf and exclaims “There it is!” I could choose to pass it off as the rambling of a demented woman and go about my business, or I could become curious enough to wonder why, suddenly, did she have this reaction this time? I follow her pointing finger up the shelf toward a few knickknacks and house plants.
“This?” I ask, pointing.
“Yes. That is for milk.”
I bring the pitcher down from the shelf. And bring out a glass for Mom to pour the ‘milk’ into.
And for a few moments I am sitting there with her at her own kitchen table when she was a child. I am looking through a window opened up by the pitcher. Before this moment I had no knowledge about that piece of pottery, about its history and its place in my mother’s memory.
Like Bill Murray’s plight in Groundhog Day, the lesson to be learned as a caregiver is that it is up to you how you choose to view the experience, how you choose to frame it. The choice is yours. It can be filled with frustration, irritation, anger, belligerence. Or, if you can lean into it, expend some effort and a lot of care, the day, or the year or the years, can indeed become wonderful.
Beth Whitman lives in Maine and is a member of Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, a developing community on the coast of Maine focused on multigenerational living and sustainability.