The Mother of Unconvention

As dementia claims her mother's memory, her condition offers a chance for balance and understanding.

by Jeanette McMahon • Member { View Profile }

For a majority of my mother's life, she has vacillated between being a playful, boisterous, joyful woman and a person plagued by fear and low self esteem - someone who seemed to feel powerless to take command of her life and follow her dreams, or defend herself against what she perceived to be the many injustices of the world. On more than one occasion she has shared her dreams and desires with me, none of which she pursued or realized — some which completely surprised me based on the life I know she has lived. Aside from just being a mom, I think this is a big part of the reason she's always been so supportive of both my sister and I to go out into the world and pursue our own dreams. And hell, she's an Aquarius, I'm a Taurus, and Carol is an Aries; independence of spirit worked to her advantage in raising two headstrong daughters.

In the last year or two, I have observed in my mother a curious balancing and leveling effect brought on by her dementia. While it continues to take bits and pieces of her memory, it also manages to provide her with a much-needed peace of mind by removing a great deal of the fear associated with the departing memories, fear that was both the driver and result of her old thinking patterns and behavior. Don't get me wrong — she still has fears, especially since she is very aware of her mental and physical deterioration. However, every time she experiences a major drop in memory and cognitive function, the signs of relief appear as well, her expression opening and relaxing like a blossoming flower; her face, her manner, how she responds to stimulus and where she chooses to focus her attention become simpler, more free. It makes sense to me to focus on this relief and the blessing that it is, as nothing can be done about the memory loss. The dementia has also taught both my sister and I to join mom in the now and embrace her as she is, rather than lamenting the loss of the person she used to be.

I had a groovy realization the other day while talking with my mother. I have a tendency to sometimes run off at the mouth about topics that excite me, but I have found that I can't do this with her because the frontal lobe damage from her strokes makes it near impossible for her to maintain a long attention span. I was animatedly discussing philosophical ideas with her, ones we have touched on in past conversations. She was very excited and interested in what I was saying, but at a certain point she just interrupted me mid-sentence and started talking about something entirely unrelated. At first I was annoyed and I felt myself taking it personally, even though I know better by now.

Then, I calmed down and let a few moments pass without saying anything. I knew I had been here before, and had been able to de-personalize moments like this. So, I used this quiet moment to question any unexamined beliefs I had about what I thought should be happening vs. what was actually happening. I wanted to get out of this funk and continue to enjoy my mother's company. I discovered there were two assumptions, neither of which had to do with her.

Assumption 1: Effective and engaging conversation involves a focused and polite exchange of listening and sharing.

Hmm...sounds reasonable, but that's not what's happening here with my Mom. So what is true about conversation? When I really thought about it, I realized that maintaining focus on the person you are conversing with is nothing more than a learned social norm; it's considered an active listening skill that identifies someone as a good conversationalist. It is not necessarily an honest or genuine behavior. However, my mother was being genuine and in the moment. She was, in fact, quite present and focused; what we were talking about had sparked a thought of something else she was excited about, something she wanted to communicate to me, and she did so minus the filter of convention.

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