About a year and a half ago, when my mom was 71, I noticed her memory was worsening more quickly than any of us had expected. My grandmother, her mom, had lived to be 102 with a near perfect memory. My mom and I assumed she would age in the same way, and I was shocked when I realized that this wasn’t the case.
My mom’s memory loss isn’t at all what I imagined memory loss to be. Until it was happening to her, I didn’t know that I had lots of stories about what memory loss would be like in my mind, like that you go from being 100% you to being 100% confused or checked out in a day or two. I didn’t realize that I thought of memory loss as something shameful and that I feared talking to people who are experiencing it.
I live far from my mom. I talk to her everyday, but it is hard for me to know how quickly changes are happening without being there in person. I often realize her memory and ability to do tasks is getting worse when I hear what other people say about her. I get worried calls from long-time friends or I get pulled aside at family events, and people lovingly telling me they see it, seemingly looking to me to somehow “fix” her.
These are hard calls to receive, even though I’m grateful for them. Her physical therapist recently called me – thankfully defying all HIPAA regulations – to suggest that maybe my mom shouldn’t drive anymore, as she could “destroy whole families’ lives forever.”
One of my mom’s friends took her to lunch recently to break the news, over dessert, that my mom probably has Alzheimer’s. My mom, who is in denial and ashamed of her memory loss, called me to tell me about what had happened, and was so hurt and offended. She was sad for days afterwards.
My mom is not interested in a diagnosis or medicine that could help her retain her memory. She has resisted every attempt I’ve made to get a diagnosis and for my own sanity, I’ve given up on trying. She prefers not to know why she finds it hard to remember where my cousin lives (Fort Myers, Florida) or what day of the week it is (Thursday).
As hard and often frustrating as her memory loss is, I also am often thankful for this shift in her, which is surprising and confusing, too. We are more emotionally connected than ever. Childhood traumas that I was resentful about for years have faded (way more efficient than the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on therapy!) as I realize that what comes next will likely be really, really hard.
I even appreciate when her memory loss and care come together. She sent my husband a birthday present and told my whole family about his birthday at the wrong time of the year. She asks over and over about the kids on the same call and I get to tell her new things each time she asks. She often sends my kids presents and forgets she sent them. She’ll send me a link to a song she likes over and over telling me how much she loves it. When we talk (now more than ever before) and laugh at a shared joke, it feels even funnier and sweeter. She has softened with her memory loss and I am so grateful for that.
The line between grief and gratitude is getting blurrier, but at least we are still together in it.