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By Sally Torbey

Sharing a joke

Uploaded: Jan 29, 2014

My mother has Alzheimer's. She doesn't recognize me, but pretends she does. She has no idea when she last saw me, it could be yesterday or last year. She knows I have kids, but not their names or ages. She remembers where she was born, but not where her children were born. She can read fluently and with expression, but forgets the book's plot. Mom does not always recognize her apartment, but knows every word of every verse of many hymns she sang as a child, as well as all the lyrics to pop songs from the 40s and Broadway musicals. She forgets that my father passed away, but remembers he traveled frequently on business.

It is at once heartbreaking and fascinating to observe what "sticks" and what "slips away" as her dementia progresses.

What "sticks" is her sweet, kind, and accommodating personality and social graces. Always the hostess, she treats her caregivers as guests in her home, asking after their comfort or offering them food and drink. We avoid talking about birthdays or holidays, because she worries that she has not bought presents, or baked a cake or sent cards. She feels responsible for making every occasion happy and festive, and won't be dissuaded from worrying about these tasks. If we help her complete them, she forgets they are done and wants to do them over again.

Christmas is loaded with angst. This is due to a combination of Mom worrying about creating a happy holiday and also wondering why my deceased father is not home from his business trip for his Christmas birthday. My sister ingeniously created a holiday called "World Piece of Chocolate Week" (pun intended), so that Mom could join in the festive atmosphere of the season without having to be anxious about the responsibilities of Christmas. It worked like a charm, Mom loves a celebration, and the other residents in her building even joined in wishing her "Chocolate Week" greetings!

Last week I showed up at Mom's apartment running late, disheveled, and with untied shoes. Mom commented on my shoelaces (due to the safety issue) but politely refrained from commenting on the rest of my appearance. I responded, "I was in a hurry to see you, that's why my shoelaces are untied!" She said, "So, it's my fault?" I took a chance and responded, "Of course it's your fault, you're the mom, it's always the mom's fault, and although it is only 10:30am you would not believe the number of things that are already my fault today!" The caregiver looked at me anxiously until Mom burst out laughing. I was so happy to share a joke with her. It "sticks" that we are both moms of many, and that, despite our best efforts, our kids are not always grateful for all we do for them. I dearly hope it also "sticks" how appreciative I am now for all her patience and love over the years.