It was a dark and stormy night last Friday here in Georgia. Okay, it was really just drizzling, but it was dark. My mom was driving me and my daughter to my sister’s house, about a mile away, for dinner. Because Mom lives here and I don’t, I figured she knew where she was going. We picked up her prescription at the drive-in pharmacy, then headed to my sister’s house. At least that was the plan.

I did wonder why we headed into the Deer Run subdivision. But still trusting – she’s my Mom, after all – I rode along without alarm. Until she tried to run a stop sign. “Stop!” I hollered. She did stop, for about three whole minutes, looking carefully around her, letting car after car proceed at the three-way intersection. My alarm was rising, but still trusting, I sat silent as she finally rolled forward.

At the end of the road, Mom pulled into the clubhouse parking lot like she knew exactly where she was going, like this was where we were supposed to be. I had no idea where we were, nor why we had come to the pool and tennis courts.

“Where are we?” she asked, sounding befuddled, driving slowly through the deserted parking lot.

“We’re at the pool. See, there are the tennis courts,” I replied, as calmly and as matter-of-factly as I could. I was doing my best to give her the space she needed to figure it out, partly because I didn’t know how to get to my sister’s house and partly to protect her fierce pride.

“Well, this isn’t right,” she muttered, as she proceeded to execute a 10-point turn to turn the car around and exit the way we had come in.

“Mom, I think you can go right out there, straight ahead, and it will get us back to where we came in,” I suggested. This should have been obvious, but apparently, it wasn’t for Mom.

“No, I need to turn around,” she asserted.

We finally got out of the parking lot and I began to read off street names to try to help her locate herself. She eventually understood where we were and headed back toward the pharmacy. She wove back and forth between the two lanes, often straddling the line. I became seriously frightened as I realized she was too confused to safely drive. And my daughter was in the car, which only increased my anxiety.

“Mom, stay in your lane!” I yelled at one point, conscious of the pizza driver behind us, who was patiently trying to predict the erratic movements of the crazy driver in front of him. Of course, my outburst only increased her anxiety.

I probably should have insisted on driving. But I was too shocked at what was happening to know what to do. Mom always knows what to do and how to do it. Surely she knew how to get to my sister’s place. And I know all too well that stubborn independence that has served my mom so well all her life and that I honestly admire so much in her. I did not want to be the one to take that away from her in such a humiliating way. I wanted her to figure this out and get us there, like she always has.

We did make it to my sister’s house without crashing. I do not scare easily and I’d always thought “trembling with fear” was literary hyperbole. Not so. I walked into my sister’s house trembling with fear and burst into tears in my sister-in-law’s arms in the pantry.

The hard thing is, my mom is the most creative, vivacious, productive woman I’ve ever known. My tears were not just a post-traumatic release, but indicative of pure heartbreak at what is happening to her. It’s just not fair. She has been ill all her life with various ailments, beginning with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She’s been divorced, broke, and hospitalized too many times for one lifetime. You would never know it, though. She has lived her life with a courageous determination and an attitude of can-do that has served her in miraculous ways. Simply said, my mom is amazing.

But things are changing as she ages. Mom is still and always amazing, but it’s harder to see it through the fog of fading memory. I live on the other side of the country, so I only see her once or twice a year, which makes the changes glaringly apparent and all the more disturbing. I am not coping well this trip. I cry through my prayers, which are not for me, but for my mom. It breaks my heart to imagine how she feels as she experiences the loss of her own keen wits, as she senses how much of her own life she is missing due to memory loss. It may literally kill her to lose the independence she has fought so hard for. Then again, pretending she still can do all the things she’s always done may kill her, too. Or someone else.

I know I am describing the experience of many of you with aging parents. It is harder than I imagined. It’s like I’m losing my mom before she’s even gone. And I do not know how to face this with grace.

Do you?


  1. Michelle

    February 25, 2012

    This is hard stuff. I fight a nagging fear of getting old, of all the unknowns of what that can bring. I’m nervous about it knowing that my parents have to walk that path, and that I will, too (assuming my body makes it that long).

    This talk is one I come back to a lot when I’m mulling over this topic. I try to find faith that this is all part of the plan. But it’s so hard not to feel so vulnerable. Because we are. So very, very vulnerable.

  2. Handsfullmom

    February 25, 2012

    I can so relate to what you’ve written. It’s hard to watch the aging process. My dad has a chronic brain disease that flares up every few months and leaves him confused, disoriented and unable to function at a normal level.

    It’s heart-breaking to see this smart, capable, hard-working man so disabled. What’s even harder is knowing how hard this is on my mother, who can’t plan ahead or have a normal life. Our ninth child was just born and because my dad isn’t doing well this month, she won’t be able to come and see the baby, much less help. I know it’s breaking her heart. I’m doing fine without her help, but I still miss my mom and grieve for the loss of what life should have been for her during these retirement years.

  3. Saskia

    February 25, 2012

    No, I don’t. My mom has a condition that gives her regular stroke-type things every year, and each one leaves her a little weaker, a little less able to navigate life all by herself. It hurts so much to see her decline, but there’s nothing else I can do – except fiercely enjoy every good moment we’ve got left. I hope you find the grace you need.

  4. Diane

    February 25, 2012

    Believe me when I say I know what you are going through. This same experience happened to me 25 years ago when I was visiting my grandmother, and she became lost while driving – in the middle of nowhere, no cell phones those days. Now my own mother is in the throes of Alzheimer’s. It’s no fun. I can recommend a couple of books, and things I’ve done to cope. If you’re interested, send me a response and I’ll give you more information.

  5. m2theh

    February 25, 2012

    My grandpa had Alzheimers, and while we can now laugh at some of the things he said and did, at the time it wasn’t funny, it was scary. And heartbreaking.

  6. JP

    February 25, 2012

    All I can say is that you are not alone. We were on the east coast with full time jobs when my dad began to fail. Talking to him weekly, he sounded great, but when his bank and the adult protective services called (and I am his only child), we quit our jobs and moved to the west coast to be nearby so we could help him. He was putting on a good show on the phone, but I am so glad we came. He lived just two more months and then suddenly passed away. It was not the best two months. But I am glad we could share it with him. I miss him so much now…I was always a daddy’s daughter.

  7. Howard

    February 25, 2012

    We went through this level of memory loss with mom about two years ago. It progressed to psychotic symptoms alternating with lucidity and occasional wandering. Sometimes she knew us other times not. She was often cranky and oppositional but there were some nice moments and some humorous episodes along the way. She passed away peacefully in her sleep two nights ago.

  8. Lisa G.

    February 25, 2012

    Howard, blessings to you at this difficult time. I must say, it is comforting to know that so many of you are going through this, too. And Michelle said what I didn’t say, that I am scared for my own future, as well. Mom is only 22 years older than me. I know that with perspective, we will view this mortal process with gratitude and even joy. But the process itself is dang hard. God bless us, every one.

  9. Howard

    February 25, 2012

    Thank you.

    You might find this article of interest:
    Within 72 hours, the mice showed dramatic improvements in memory and more than 50% of amyloid plaque — a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease — had been removed from the brain.

  10. dalene

    February 25, 2012

    I’m so sorry, Lisa. I have no answers. Only love and hugs–

  11. Barb

    February 25, 2012

    I know for my Grandpa, his short-term memory was shot but he still had his sense of humor much of the time. If he didn’t know the name of man he called him “George. I think he called women, Maude.

    Lucid moments are so golden. It sounds like your mom is at a very early stage. It is hard news and it is something I fear facing with anyone in my family again. You are a key to your mom in so many ways as you can at times “prime the pump” of her memory.

  12. Naismith

    February 26, 2012

    I share the sympathy of those comments above, but I also have to add:

    She needs to stop driving.

    Yes, this is one of the hardest steps that adult children have to take, but do you want to be responsible when she accidentally plows over a bunch of preschoolers?

  13. Laurie

    February 26, 2012

    I also don’t know what to do in a very similar situation with my mom. She was diagnosed with an aneurysm 4 years ago and has been slowly deteriorating. She has had different procedures to try to control its growth, but they have been largely unsuccessful.

    About 3 weeks ago, she had an incident we thought was a stroke, but it turns out it was a seizure. She lives alone and she fell down her stairs and has no memory of the event. She was in the hospital for a week and has been in a rehab facility for the past two weeks. Fortunately, her doctors have said that she cannot drive for 6 months, but I want them to say she permanently cannot drive. She was a very poor driver even before she started to age. The doctors are saying she will likely be sent home after her rehab care is done, with some sort of home health care on a daily basis, but she doesn’t do things to care for herself. For the past year, she spends most of her days in bed, she barely eats once a day and doesn’t want to do anything for herself. She doesn’t cook, we have a person come once a week to clean for her, and she only talks to people if they call her or go to her house. She makes no effort for any outside contact. She is on anti-depressants, and they actually have improved things. She has sleep apnea but refuses to use her C-PAP mask and machine.

    I don’t know how to help someone who either is refusing to help herself, or is losing the mental capacity to do so, and I don’t know what is going to happen to force a change. I want to move her into assisted living, but unless the doctors require it, she will never go willingly. I am at a total loss for what to do.

  14. Anon

    February 26, 2012

    What a traumatic event, and not only because you felt physical danger. My heart goes out to you, I understand your situation somewhat as my mother in law is dealing with some of these same things. The maddening part for me, besides living a thousand miles away, is that no one in the family will talk about it!

    On several occasions when my In-laws have visited us I bring it up with my husband. His reaction is, “There’s nothing we can do, why bring it up?” Meanwhile it’s clear she’s forgetting things, her personality is changing as she is increasingly frustrated with herself, and my father-in-law is trying to absorb her mistakes and memory lapses in what I assume is an attempt to retain her dignity.

    After watching my Grandpa slowly wither from dementia, I don’t want to watch my mother in law go in silence. Every step of the way my otherwise dysfunctional family was blunt about my Grandpa’s state of mind because we watched his mother decline in the same way. He asked his sons to take him out in the desert and let him wander away when he got to the point of complete disorientation. (They didn’t, but he didn’t know they disobeyed because he forgot that he asked them to.) He did know what was coming, we all did. Ultimately his passing was slightly sweet as I was excited for him to be free of a body that was not only limiting him physically but also mentally.

    I don’t want my mother to pass into memory loss without someone recording her precious memories before they are gone, without a word to comfort her that she’ll never be left alone through this challenge, without a family plan.

    Anon for this because if my mother in law read this she’d stop talking to me, that is until she forgets that she’s not talking to me. (Humor helps!)

    Still Alice is a great fiction read from the point of view of a woman dealing with early onset Alzheimers, I recommend it.

  15. Sage

    February 27, 2012

    Thanks for sharing this. My sister, who lives near my mom (I’m across the country) mentioned to me last week that my mom’s mind seems to be going.

    It is not easy to anticipate this, let alone be going through it. Hugs and prayers.

  16. m2theh

    February 27, 2012

    My mom had a stroke and died about a month later. She was not thinking clearly and made some poor decisions regarding her health. One thing I regret was not taking a more active stand and forcing her to take her medicine and follow up with her doctor. It may not have changed the outcome, but then I wouldn’t feel like I dropped the ball. It’s really hard though to step in and tell your parent that you don’t trust them to make decisions for themselves.

  17. MB

    February 28, 2012

    We found that in order to face it with grace we had to have a thoughtfully, prayerfully considered plan in place. That required good communication between siblings and moved us from “reacting to the latest developments” to “taking the next step in the plan”. That move diminishes panic which increases reception to revelation.

    Each case varies. In our own case it meant finding help first for cleaning, then for driving, then for meals as long as she was able to live in her own home. Then, as her mind wandered too far away, moving her into our home and finding day help (often pleasant young grad student wives with a child in tow)as needed. When that care became physically beyond our capacities, then it was finding help through nursing home care for the last few months of her life. If you have plans for how you might do each step in your own thoughtful,loving plan before they are needed, there is much more peace in the process.

    There is a transition from “oh no!” to “we can do this” which we children of aging parents need to go through. And yes, with the Lord, you can do this. And as you do, though the grief doesn’t disappear, it is assuaged by his encouragement and guidance.

  18. KDA

    February 28, 2012

    Lisa: Thank you for writing such a beautiful and detailed description of the scary things that can happen when a loved one starts having memory problems. I am pursuing a master’s in aging studies and volunteering at a skilled nursing center. This fall, I spent 200 hours writing a seminar paper on communication barriers for people with dementia. But I don’t have a family member with memory problems. My viewpoint is from the outside, and much of what I read takes an academic (i.e., which can come off as detached) stance on the subject. This is so tenderly written. The more I learn about memory problems, the less I feel like I actually know anything. God bless you as you walk this rocky path. As others have mentioned, there are resources (support groups, offices on aging, books), but I recognize that it will still be hard. Even though this is just a tiny gesture, I would be happy to ferret out a response to a question / concern if you ever need me to loan my bookish skills.

  19. Lisa G.

    February 28, 2012

    Thanks to you all for your support and generosity. My mom does have a wonderful husband who looks after her well (though she calls it “hovering”) so that helps immensely. I can see that it is time to coordinate and plan, and I appreciate the resources y’all have provided. Thank you!

  20. gloria.g

    February 28, 2012

    i was their too you know.

  21. Sue O

    March 23, 2012

    Hey, old friend, I’m glad to see that you’re writing again.
    I don’t know what’s worse, losing parents when they are young or watching them slowly deteriorate into dementia. Mostly all I can do is worry from afar and feel guilty because my sister carries most of that burden. Be glad that your Mom has a caring husband.
    I’ve enjoyed your pieces on here. Introspective and perceptive as always.
    And Gloria’s comment made me chuckle.

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