My mother died Monday morning, June 13 … and I was relieved.
That sounds awful, and perhaps it is, but the death of a loved one, especially someone suffering from dementia, can hit you like that.
My mother was diagnosed four years ago after her increasing confusion about everyday activities became more pronounced. She sold her house in Charles Town and moved to Harmony senior living facility in Morgantown to be near my wife and me.
Life was still pretty good for a few years. She made some friends an enjoyed sitting on her balcony. At age 94, her physical strength finally started to fail. She began falling and we made several trips to the emergency room.
All the while her memory was slowly, but inevitably, fading. The mother I grew up with, loved and so often depended upon disappeared. Her boundless energy, gracious manner and social engagement were all slipping away.
Dementia is a strange malady. My mother could remember specific details from her childhood, including names of her classmates and stories about swimming in the river or how she ran out of her piano recital because she had not practiced.
However, most of the events of the last 70+ years were, at best, vague recollections, if she remembered them at all. It was as though the thick book of her life was now filled with blank pages.
My wife and I supplemented the care with daily visits, typically in the evening. We helped her dress for bed and make one more trip to the bathroom before getting her settled. We spent the rest of the visit looking at family pictures, which she enjoyed even though she often had to be reminded of the names and how they were related.
Those who have been through the cognitive decline of a loved one know how difficult it can be. It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing. And it’s often frightening. There are changes in mood and personality that include angry outbursts.
I am telling this story because, while this was my first dementia experience, it’s not uncommon. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that by age 70, one in 10 individuals will have Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). That rises to one in four by age 80. Thirty percent to 50% of those with MCI progress to dementia or the more specific diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Early detection is important for improved quality of life.
“A key consideration for managing Alzheimer’s disease is determining when to intervene,” The Alzheimer’s Association reported. “Accurate diagnosis of MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease, prior to the development of dementia, is thus crucial in identifying individuals who might benefit from early treatment.”
Those are difficult conversations to have with a spouse or a parent. Frankly, the disease is terrifying, for the individual and the caregivers. My mother was never going to get better, only worse, and sadly, she often had enough wherewithal left to know she was losing her mind.
As a result, she prayed to die. “Why doesn’t God take me?” she would plead. Finally, the prayer was answered. I was relieved, and I felt guilt.
I was very close to my mother. She was the dominant parent in my life, diminutive in size, but powerful in personality.
When I became interested in radio, she bought me my first tape recorder. She lovingly prepared big meals for family gatherings. Kept newspaper clippings of family marriages, deaths and achievements. She was a terrible photographer, but she took so many pictures that we have a decent pictorial record of family events.
More than anything, my mother was always just there, ready for whatever needed doing.
Why wasn’t I devastated by her death? Then it occurred to me that I had been mourning her since her dementia diagnosis four years earlier, slowly watching the mother who had raised, nurtured and loved me, disappear in a fog.