About a month ago I was standing at a crowded deli counter trying to decide which salad to buy for my mother when I was surprised to hear my name called out. I looked up to see a woman from my mother’s town, a good distance away from this busy store, and what started as a pleasant conversation quickly deteriorated into a quiet, intense and unhappy exchange while the other shoppers tried to steer their carts around us. It felt awful, it was awful. I was trapped. I didn’t want the conversation to escalate and I didn’t want to simply stand there and accept what seemed like harsh and uninformed judgment about my mother’s care. My face probably told everyone that I was upset, but I kept a death grip on the handle of my shopping cart and on my response. But the truth is I felt ill when I finally walked away.
For many reasons it was important to do what I could to keep lines of communication open with this person and her family. So other than reminding her that she has my all my contact information and has always been welcome to let me know about new concerns or worries, I didn’t defend myself.
I’ll admit that this criticism went deep and it took days to get over my emotional turmoil. You know how can be, once something touches a guarded painful place the held back emotions come to the surface and you can cry for days because there is so much to grieve over.
By the end of the next week I had reached resolution. I’d prayed, thought, listened, and worked to come to a place of peace which both settled my mind and prepared me for any future criticism about the way I care for my mother in her deepening dementia.
In sharing the details with a just few trusted friends and professionals involved in our case I got much needed care and support which was comforting and helpful. They reminded me that the person bringing the judgment was not involved in helping, and clearly had no idea of what was happening in my life with my mother. My close friends reminded me that I was doing all I could do, and the professionals said I was doing far more than what most people are able to do. Hearing their words helped bring me back to center and to keep the unhappy remarks in their proper context.
In my praying I asked for the grace to not take offense with this person, and to forgive her for the hurt she caused me. I’ve been able to do this, and at the same time know I need to be cautious until trust is built—which might or might not ever happen. Either way I choose not to bring others into it to carry offense for me, or to cause people to take sides.
The biggest piece for me was pinpointing and understanding what I’m doing for my mother, and why I’m doing it, basically my mission statement ideas. I knew all these things but I’d never narrowed it down to three our four clearly articulated points.
- Dignity and respect This is about how I treat her, how I relentlessly guard her and advocate for her, and how I speak to and about her. This is about her rights as a human being, created in the image of God. She is not made unacceptable by her disease.
- Patience and kindness This is about how I respond to her agitation, confusion, and endless repetition (or the sudden, momentary appearance of her former self). This means pleasantly saying “Okay” every time she forgets a decision and changes her mind. This is about dropping everything to help or to fulfill a request. This is remembering that she is a shadow of her former self and doesn’t know why.
- Practicing safety This means I do everything I can to keep her from harm, but it doesn’t mean that I get to impose my own standards and agenda over every area of her life.
- Being present in her happiness and in her suffering. This means that I “dip into her reality” when it’s different from mine, instead of criticizing or bringing her back to the present. This means I choose to enjoy what she enjoys (even when other things need to be done), or to help her work through her confusion, fear and agitation (when it would be so much easier to walk away).
I don’t like being blindsided, but who does? It wasn’t easy but I now feel prepared to answer quickly and quietly if or when the need arises. Unfair criticism and judgment can bring about good things.
(I make the long drive to see my mother every two weeks or more often if needed. When I’m not there I rely a silent army of people who graciously stand by to provide help and on the professionals who have joined me in the quest to find the best solution for my mother and her care.)