Losing My Mom to Dementia

This is what it's like losing your mom to dementia. Read more from Holl & Lane at hollandlanemag.com

Words by Katherine Emery

The definition of genteel: having an aristocratic quality or flavor, elegant or graceful in manner, appearance, or shape. This is YDE, Mary Yvonne, Vonnie, my mom.

During one of our daily chats, Mom told me that the funniest thing had happened to her at Target. Finished with her shopping, she couldn’t find her keys in her purse. She retraced her steps, no keys. Mom then walked back to her car which was running, and the keys were in the ignition. This was two years before she died.

***

Mom had a story book childhood, her dad’s family was from Texas and oil. There was a new home in a new country or state every three years. Mom’s earliest memory was of her days spent with her beloved Amah, playing dolls in her “play house” in Manila. Mom told stories of the servants polishing the wood floors with coconuts on their feet, of ceiling fans, and mosquito nets. While living in The Hague, Holland, Mom was introduced to the piano and according to my grandmother, Mom was a prodigy.

Mom and Dad met in Casper, Wyoming. Dad was an Oil and Gas attorney with his own practice. He was a Naval Officer who fought at the battle of Guadalcanal. He was 29, Mom was 24. They dated for six months and were married. We have home movies of the wedding. Mom was beautiful and Dad was very handsome. The end cut of the movie is Mom and Dad driving off in his 1948 Packard convertible in March (in Wyoming!). Mom was a beautiful, dark haired woman with indigo eyes.

My mom stayed at home with the four of us but she had always volunteered. She spear headed the strep throat prevention program at our elementary school, she was president of our PTA and active in the Junior League. Bridge club with her friends, piano lessons, and art classes kept her busy. Mom sewed many of my dresses and all of my Halloween costumes.

My dad died when Mom was 46, at Christmas time. Mom went to work and became a receptionist at a law firm. She was furious at Dad for dying. Vodka and Winstons became her nightly companions. The vodka made Mom maudlin so I would distract her by asking questions about her childhood. I wish that I had written it all down at the time, I thought that I had all the time in the world. Many years later, I bought a journal for Mom to write in but she wasn’t interested.

She and her sister continued to travel together for the next 20 years. Three weeks in Europe were delightful when Mom was in her mid 60’s. They spent the summer after Mom’s 70th birthday researching their ancestral homes from Louisiana to Rhode Island. Their mode of transportation was a behemoth (car) nicknamed “Cupcake”.

That fall my aunt was diagnosed with colon cancer. Mom was there to help her sister. This was a difficult job for Mom as she had spent months caring for my grandmother before she died. My aunt’s death was tough on Mom, she lost her dear sister, her best friend.

At age 78, Mom was still active, still driving her car. She volunteered once a week at the local art museum, would go to lunch with friends and walked the mall most mornings. Mom read the newspaper every morning and loved a good novel before bed.

After Mom’s 80th birthday, my sister and I discussed the idea of Mom moving out of her home and into an apartment closer to one of us. Mom didn’t like that idea at all! As a compromise, she agreed to the “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” thing.

I called Mom every day that I can remember. Our calls were brief, just a run down of the day’s activities. Mom would have little anecdotes about whom she had seen at the grocery store, what her dog was up to, that sort of thing.

At age 82, Mom quit her volunteer job at the art museum because it was stressing her out. Mom stopped playing bridge and going out to lunch with her friends. She basically became a hermit but she had good excuses so I didn’t question her. I had never heard panic in my mom’s voice on the phone, until the morning she couldn’t get out of bed. That was Mom’s first and only ambulance ride. She never spent another night in her home in the city that she loved.

The prognosis was a surprise, dementia. We didn't have a clue about dementia, no one in our family had had it. The doctor suggested assisted living. He was amazed that she had been doing so well living on her own.

The first year of assisted living was a great one for Mom. She took up chair yoga and began to paint again. Mom made some lovely friends and seemed to really enjoy all of the activities. By her second year, she began spending more time in her apartment, refusing to eat in the dining room. She became more and more confused, she forgot how to brush her teeth. During our phone calls, Mom would just put the phone down. She would tell me that she hadn’t seen my sister in a week (my sister visited daily). Mom fell and things went downhill fast. She stopped eating. She was bedridden. The doctor basically said that she was in the final stages of dementia. We sat vigil for two days with Mom. She was very restless and feverish. We played her favorite classical music, which seemed to soothe her. She slept most of those two days but when she was awake she was completely lucid. On the morning of day three, we got the call from the minister at the assisted living that Mom had very politely passed away by herself.

Photo by Katherine Emery

Photo by Katherine Emery

As dementia stories go, Mom’s is not a sad story. She didn’t really lose her mind. She was old, and she had an amazing life filled with family and love.

After Mom’s death, I spent every Sunday drinking wine and crying. My husband and children were very patient and kind. After six months I knew that I needed help. Through Reiki, I learned that all seven of my chakras were closed up tight! I’m still working on keeping my chakras open and avoiding sugar as it is known to contribute to dementia. I inwardly freak out if I forget someone’s name or how to spell a word. I now spend Sundays walking with my grandchildren and drinking green juice.


Click to Read Next: My Definition of Family


About the Author:

Katherine Emery is a retired chef living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She loves walking her French Bulldogs, knitting, yoga, swimming, good books, and sitting by the fire.


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