I remember clearly the day I realized my mother’s memory was worse than I realized. We were charged with bringing a dish of green beans to a family gathering. I waited to follow her lead, since her kitchen in this independent living apartment was unfamiliar to me. But my mom, then in her 80s, gave me a helpless look and finally admitted that she didn’t know how to make them. This was the woman who had cooked for a family of nine, who made a different dish every night of what was then considered a healthy meal: meat, a starch (usually potatoes), vegetables, salad and dessert.
It was hard for my mother to admit she was no longer capable, because she had always been in control—first raising seven children, then tending to her mother’s needs in a nursing home, and then taking care of my father after he suffered a massive heart attack, lost his memory and then had a stroke. Her identity and self-esteem were based on taking care of others. When that ended, and she couldn’t even take care of herself any longer, she was terrified: what was left of her?
Unlike my mother, my father accepted his memory loss when he was in his 80s and didn’t try to fight it. It didn’t upset him that he couldn’t remember, or at least he didn’t show it. Ten minutes after telling him we were going to dinner soon, he would forget, but when we told him again that we were visiting his favorite restaurant, the one with the blueberry pancakes, he would be delighted all over again. Just like he would be thrilled an hour later when we arrived at the restaurant that he had forgotten we were going to. Of course, memory loss was easier for him to handle than for my mother, because she was there to remind him of family events, what to wear, how to get to the grocery store.
After my father died, my mother was alone with her memory loss. She did everything she could to control her life, asking every 15 minutes what the schedule was for the day. After lunch, I told her, we would visit her granddaughter and husband. Fifteen minutes later, she would ask again, and then ask what were the plans for dinner. And then ask 20 minutes later. All my efforts to placate her didn’t work: don’t worry about it, I told her, I’ll let you know, give you plenty of warning to get dressed. But she couldn’t let go of the anxiety and fear, and it caused her a lot of pain—and frustration for her children.
They say that 50 percent of people over 80 will suffer from some form of dementia—anything from Alzheimer’s to minor memory lapses. I know I need to be prepared, not just in practical terms, but also emotionally, so I look to my father and an old friend as an example.
My friend, who is near 90, has almost total memory loss. She remembers the names of her son, his wife and their daughter, and friends who come by regularly. But she doesn’t remember what she did yesterday and has lost most memories of her younger years. One day I called her and had to explain who I was, how we knew each other. Yet she is happy, still lives alone in the house where she and her husband raised their son. Friends drop by with meals, and she dotes on her cat, her constant companion. She still enjoys reading and has her favorite TV shows.
Watching both my parents in their final years (and my friend in her 80s), I learned a lesson that becomes more valuable as I age: accept, don’t fight it, whether it’s memory loss or physical issues. I think of my mom’s almost constant psychic pain in trying to control her life. I don’t want to endure that kind of suffering. From my father and friend, I’ve learned that one can still be happy and enjoy life, even if you can’t remember what day it is.