A Loving Journey Through Dementia

I’ve heard it said that in their senior years, the parent becomes the child, and the child becomes the parent. Naively, I dismissed that as nothing but a humorous metaphor. How I’ve grown since then.

I’ve known my mother’s love of shopping, her gift of gab, her artistic talents, her fondness for flora and fauna, and her outrageous sense of humor. Then suddenly she was a person I’d never met before. She became a person I didn’t always like very much. And yet, I never stopped loving her.

Vascular Dementia consumed Mom’s brain more rapidly than I ever thought possible. After hearing the diagnosis, I volunteered to walk the difficult journey with her. I knew what to expect: confusion, forgetfulness, mood swings … and eventually, one day, she would no longer recognize me. It didn’t faze me. I was ready and willing to be there with her, helping her through the difficult years ahead. We would travel this downhill journey of life together and it would be alright. But reality chooses its own path. This was not a downhill journey at all. It proved to be an exhausting upward climb: Steep and rocky and blocked by endless obstacles. The more Mom’s brain was consumed, the more difficult it was to navigate the path. There are no set rules; no easy fixes; no turning back or regaining what is lost. It’s important to keep your sense of humor and laugh when you can, and cry when you must. Having a parent or loved one with one of these diseases should never cause embarrassment or shame; no different than if they suffered from cancer or any other illness. It’s important not to judge, but to love.

I spent her last week of life at her side, checking countless times to see if she was still breathing. When it was over, I felt relief that she no longer lay motionless, silently dying on the inside day after day. Yet I grieved because she was gone from this earth, and her passing left an empty hollow in many hearts.

People told me that Mom is better off, in a better place, free of the effects of dementia. Others dwell on what dementia did to her: What a shame, what a waste, she used to be such a nice person … But I see Mom’s life in its entirety and not only the ending. Dementia may have ended her life, but it didn’t define her. It changed her personality for a while, but it wasn’t who she was. She was still my mother, who suffered from a serious disease at the very end of her long, fruitful life. I saw it no different than if she had terminal cancer or a crippling condition. This disease took its effect on her no different than any other disease would have. Mom was not someone to be pitied because of it. She wasn’t someone who caused me embarrassment or shame. She still boogied behind her walker; she loved to dance. Granted, it was hard work helping Mom through this disease. It felt like a thankless job much of the time. Decisions were difficult without feedback from the patient herself. Mom didn’t know me anymore and often didn’t appreciate my visits. But when I visited Mom, I saw her as my mother, although she no longer acted like my mother. She no longer knew me, but I knew her. It was my turn to return the favor of such great love.

Thank you, Mom, for the challenge, the education, the laughter, and tears that have made me a better person because of it. You’ve been my mother, mentor, and teacher right up until the end. And you still are to this day.

Kelly Maloney is the author of “I Am Mother’s Mother: A Loving Journey Through Dementia” and the Lauren Murphy mystery series.

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