I'm writing on Mother's Day so it seems only natural that I'm thinking about my own mother. I feel tremendous gratitude that my mother, who lives only a few miles from me, doesn't have Alzheimer's or a related dementia. In fact, other than the normal age related issues that she brings up from time to time, she's both beautiful and healthy.
Many of you may not be so fortunate, as your mother may have Alzheimer's. The relationship between an adult child and their mother with Alzheimer's is unique in each family. But always, the experience of caregiving is relational. It can't be separated from people's understanding of each other in the past, present, or even the anticipated future. The personal journey of each son or daughter in a caregiving role is rooted in past relationships.
The mother-daughter bond (for better or worse) is central to the lives of women. For most of us, our mother knows us in ways no one else does, or even can. Only our mother fully knows the events surrounding our birth, only she may hold certain details of our childhood, our awkward quirks, most embarrassing moments and the pivotal milestones in our life. For some of us, it's our mother we look to, to share our joys, and who we turn to when we need to be comforted. So, when a daughter has a mother with Alzheimer's, the grief can be immeasurable.
Leeza Gibbons tells of the first time her mother with Alzheimer's no longer recognized her:
"I remember being home in my mother's house in South Carolina, helping her make the bed, and she was watching my every movement closely and trying to mirror what I was doing. Then she stopped and looked at me, and I said, "What's the matter, Mom?" She said, "You're a very nice lady. How do I know you?" And I just smiled and said, "You know me because today I'm your daughter, yesterday I was your daughter, and I'll always be your daughter." And she said, "Oh." "It stabs your heart," Leeza said.
In my discussions with daughters who are caring for a mother (or father) with Alzheimer's, there are always those that inspire me with their grace. These women speak about the incredible sadness of not only losing a part of their mother, but feel like they're losing a part of themselves as well. Yet, in spite of this, I hear often from women about the unexpected gifts and the life lessons that prevail even in the darkest stretches of caregiving.
Many share how their mothers with Alzheimer's teach them about living in the moment — existing outside of memory and occupying the moment wholly. These daughters have learned how to find a sense of contentment and love in the face of a bad situation — mostly by simply choosing to. They reveal that their mother's Alzheimer's teaches them that unleashing the joy in caregiving, and moreover in life, has to do with adjusting priorities, learning to value little steps, letting go of old ideas and expectations, seeing the delight in ordinary things and accepting life as it unfolds.
Life lessons from Mom needn't end when Alzheimer's begins. In fact, the greatest may be yet to come.
"How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!"
- Maya Angelou
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