I learned more about some of mom’s behaviors earlier this week.

  • Mom has only been a food critic for 7 or 8 years. It came on rather suddenly, and was baffling to all of us who regularly ate with her. I admit to taking her criticism personally, not that I worried my cooking was inadequate, but that she was simply being unkind. Turns out the dementia patient, when exhibiting this sort of behavior, is expressing anxiety. The patient is at a place on their path that they know things are different in their cognitive functioning, and it scares them, making them anxious. In order to feel safe, other things in their lives need to remain the same, food for instance. Every time I’ve served steamed asparagus for the last 7 or 8 years, mom has had to tell me how she prepares it, with a distinct edge of, “Why aren’t you preparing the asparagus my way!” I always reply that while I enjoy her way of serving the veggie, we prefer it steamed, just steamed. The ensuing ‘Harrumph’ from mom got wearing. Image this happening at every meal, sometimes over more than one dish. During the last few years of my father’s life we hosted them for dinner 30% of the YEAR. That’s a lot of criticism to take when not understanding it’s about your mama’s anxiety. When mom first moved to the AL community, she was hyper-critical of the food. Everything had changed in her life. Now, I hear, she will actually compliment the food. It’s a sign that she feels safe, but that she is also more in the moment, meaning her disease is advancing.
  • Around the same time the food critic emerged, mom started clutching her purse. She’d enter our home, and keep her purse tightly next to her like it was full of doubloons. It annoyed my father, and so I’d try to get her to leave it on the banister, or our bed, before they snapped at each other. As the dementia patient’s illness progresses, and their world become scarier, that purse becomes the all-familiar safety blanket. The purse will usually get heavier and heavier as the patient adds more and more items to it. It’s a good compensatory tool for a while, but how good a crutch it is depends on how organized one was earlier in life. My mom could never keep track of her keys when I was a kid. Not a foreboding of things to come, it just wasn’t her strong suit. Before going into AL, she lost her keys regularly to the point that it impacted her quality of life. Like, she couldn’t find them for days, and they obviously weren’t in the purse, which was upended multiple times. Currently, mom’s wallet is stuffed with so many unneeded cards from every charity she’s ever given to, that it takes her 3-4 minutes to find her ID and insurance cards when we’re at doctors’ appointments (and sometimes she gives up and asks me to find them for her). However, she’s stopped carrying the purse around when she’s out and about in the AL community. Granted, it’s in a locked drawer in her apartment! Again, a sign that she’s more in the moment as her dementia advances.

It’s helpful for me to approach these topics clinically, especially when what I’ve learned explains why my mom behaves a certain way. I’m able to forgive myself for being annoyed at what I perceived was my mother’s intent, which she really had/has no control over.

Sadly, these new understandings also show me how much I do, and likely always will, view my mom as far more together than she really is. But, as long as I’m not living blindly in fantasy land, that’s probably OK.

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