Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Is Your Mom/Dad/Spouse Ill—Or Just Being Difficult?

I'm often asked the following questions:

• When did I first realize that my mother was ill and not just being difficult?
• What are some examples of her challenging behavior?
• How did I try to cope?

For this post, I will focus on the first question: when did I finally understand that what I was seeing was illness and not nastiness? While I cannot pinpoint the exact moment with any accuracy, suddenly I knew—the light bulb flashed on and it was not a happy moment.

All her life, Mom had been a well organized, high energy person. She ran my father's manufacturing business and, when she retired, she became a dedicated community oriented leader, an organizational volunteer and chapter president, a local library board member, and a worker for all sorts of charitable organizations too numerous to mention here.

My mother grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and lived there until retiring to Florida at around age 60 with my father. Dad died suddenly while shopping in a Sears store. He just collapsed with Mom shopping beside him. He was 83. Mom was 77 and, of course, was totally traumatized.

I was to learn that dementia is something that happens gradually; quietly altering a person's skills and behavior until it becomes so obvious something is wrong that it can't be ignored. After my father died, I suddenly realized that Mom had been slipping emotionally and cognitively for some time. I just hadn't noticed before because Dad had been covering for her.

Mom's behavior was becoming eccentric and embarrassing. At first, not suspecting illness, I felt angry and guilty but, as I say, dementia kind of creeps up on you. I gradually realized that something was wrong. Something very serious.

She was ultimately diagnosed with a progressive dementia, not Alzheimer's, rather a multi-infarct (mini-stroke) vascular dementia. And her only son (me), who lived 1400 miles away, was to become her primary caregiver.

Next time, I'll report on question two: Examples of Mom's behavior alerting me to the fact that something dreadful was happening.

Bob Tell
Author, "Dementia-Diary, A Caregiver's Journal"

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