Bart’s Story: Dementia Meltdown

“Along the way, my mother hurls a host of personal insults that sting and tear into my own mind, to the point where I don’t know what to do to help my parents or myself.”

Parenting Your Parent's - Bart's StoryWhat follows is a chronicle of a terrible week when my mother very unexpectedly and completely imploded. It’s all about what happens when a parent is undergoing rapidly advancing dementia that is suspected to be the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s nothing nice about any of this. It’s painful for all involved. I feel a huge amount of love for both my mother, who succumbed to the “twilight zone” of her older age, and my father, who had to witness his wife of nearly six decades change before his non-seeing eyes into someone totally different in the time they had left together.

We hoped that in some way we’d manage to work through this dire challenge and be able to help and support my mother, to make her as comfortable as possible, and to somehow let her know how much we loved her and cared about her well-being. And we hoped my father would be able to cope with the fact that we couldn’t ever go back to where we were: that nothing would ever be sure or safe or right again.

But the reality was that our worlds were changed forever. My mother ultimately had to be placed into a nursing home to eventually die there.

My father reached a point where he didn’t want to live any longer. And as the only child, I was the driving family caregiver to them both, through it all. Because that’s how it works.  On the face of it, it’s a portion of life none of us is prepared to — or wants to — face. However, it’s there, and for each of us it’s there in a different way and form.

Dementia, my parents’ doctor tells me, cuts a broad swath through the mind and behavior of the elderly. Dementia is a single word that seemingly means so little and yet affects so much. It ranges across a spectrum from pre-dementia to mild to moderate through to severe, and then to the end stage. Bottom line: cognitive capabilities — memory, judgment, insight, and reason — decline. Which is a nice way of saying that the mind is no longer able to do the work it once did, and that step by step a new mindset enters that is confusing, difficult to accept, and eventually impossible to understand for all those who have to deal with it.

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Dementia means many different things to many people, but what it means most to all of us who have a parent experiencing it is that there is a growing gap between what we used to experience with a parent and what is happening now.

My parents’ doctor has given my mother a carefully balanced set of medications to help her cope with her increasingly fragile mental state. She’s been tested in just about every imaginable way. A geriatric assessment team has spent time with her twice in the past six months, and then there were the CT scans and the blood work and the neurologist’s examination. All of it has resulted in little more than the conclusion that my mother is far more demented than she was six or twelve months ago, and that, in fact, she’s now delusional.

This diagnosis is borne out by her most recent allegations that my father — nearing 96 — and one of the women who come in to help them (who’s in her late thirties) are having a sexual relationship. The accusations started several weeks ago when my mother became agitated because the helper was stroking my father’s arm, and it built from there.

Yesterday, my mother claimed that the helper was in bed with my father. Just today, she maintained that the helper was nude in my father’s room, then in bed with him. She also asserted that the helper was stealing things from the house and lying about what medication my mother is taking.

This afternoon, my mother actually physically attacked my father, hitting and slapping him, and tried to hit the helper with her cane.

I talked to my parents at least a dozen times today on the telephone because I’m away. The concern, worry, agony, fear, anger, and love are overwhelming as the stress of the situation courses through me. Each time we talk, I hear the beleaguered voice of my father, weak as it is, straining to be heard, telling me how concerned he is about my mother and how terrible he feels — how her imagination is getting the best of her.

He asks how I can help, and I tell him that I just don’t know, because I’m way beyond my competency in this situation. He wants me to come to their house; I ask what that will achieve, and he tells me probably nothing.

When my mother gets on the phone, she’s full of venom. Her anger is awesome and overwhelming. She verbally attacks my father: How could he have sexual relations with this woman after so many years of marriage, all through which she’s been faithful and so caring of him and me?

And how can he deny his transgression? And then my mother sets in on me: How is it possible that I, her son, could possibly question her about what she’s seen? How is it possible that I would doubt her word when she’s always been there for me over these many years? It’s a nasty conversation during which I sometimes lose control and verbally shoot back and sometimes try very hard to give her comfort.

The reason we have so many telephone sessions is that my mother keeps hanging up on me. After one such set of calls, I telephone my parents’ doctor and leave a message, asking him to call me as soon as he can. Then, in the next call to my mother, she tells me that I’ve abandoned her, that I’ve sided with my father, that I’ve been brainwashed by others, and that I’ve fallen to the charms of this helper of theirs as well. Along the way, my mother hurls a host of personal insults that sting and tear into my own mind, to the point where I don’t know what to do to help my parents or myself.

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Image Credit: Old Man Grieving – Vincent Van Gogh Image is reversed. Note: image is for illustrative purposes and is not drawn from the book.