Cher, Bloody Marys and dementia: The heartbreak and comic absurdity of caring for an aging mom

As Betty drifts further away, I am determined to stay close. Thank goodness we have the DVD of "Dirty Dancing"

Published March 9, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

A photo of the author's mother
A photo of the author's mother

My mother is sitting in front of the mirror at the hairdresser’s on the suburban outskirts of St. Louis, peering at her reflection as if she just cannot fathom what on Earth became of the woman she used to see there. Someone is almost missing. She is almost missing. She senses it. We sense it. It chills us, but we are silent about what is happening. Maybe if we can change her hair, we can bring her back a little. Maybe if she can look in the mirror and see someone she remembers, she will feel a little more comfortable in her skin. It’s the little things. That’s what taking care of someone is to me, the little things that for a moment or two hook her back to life or bring a sliver of light to the eyes. If I were to make a list of suggestions for caretakers, it would be all about little things, treats and surprises, and special foods, and little presents on dark days.

“Come back home,” I want to whisper into my mother’s ears because she seems so far away all of a sudden. In the background, Katy Perry sings, “Teenage Dream…”

Helen, who does my mother’s color, picks up Betty’s mood, says: “Don’t worry, babe. We do you up. We gonna take this shit to a new level.”

Betty is 92 years old. She has that expression she gets sometimes now, a certain hard, unseeing stare she never had in the old days, before the losses (driving, the piano, the bridge club, the ladies who used to call); before the dementia and the struggle to remember the names and places in the books she reads (Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Babe … What is her last name? Paley, Paley, Paley); before the cancer and the dry skin from the radiation, when things were more normal.

My mother’s state of mind inflicts its burdens on everything around us now; it colors our world completely. This winter has been gray, the color of the low fog drifting in the Missouri river bottoms. The heat in the house is never right, but most often it is too hot. There are so many things that will forever summon up this era of our lives for me -- the dry air pressing on my face in our quiet house; the moisturizer that is hell to administer as she cannot bear the pressure of my fingers, the cinnamon rolls every morning, the old sandals by her bed that she insists on wearing. Even today. In the parking lot, I half-lifted her through the patches of slush and every time she screamed out.

Now and again there is still a flash of smile or an amused look that signal the arrival of the woman who used to be here. But today her eyes are glassy and I don’t want to look at them because they make me feel I don’t know her anymore. More disturbing is the sense that she doesn’t know her anymore. Most disturbing is the sense that the woman in the mirror is the last person in the world my mother wants to see. The sight of this woman can sometimes almost make her cry.

I wonder what would happen if we dyed her hair some shade it has never been. Red? Blue, like Katy Perry’s. But that fantasy always leads to the next thought: What if she didn’t recognize herself at all? I wonder if it will be like that sometime not too far in the future.

I have been away from New York, living at home, in our little town for more than three years now —because I do not want my mother to be alone with all the things she is feeling as her self drifts off. I don’t want to put her in a place that will make her worse instead of better. I don’t want her to be lonely. Dementia is not treatable. But one can scrub away at the edges a bit, lifting the depression and the terrible anxiety she carries, the anxiety of knowing she is drifting away on her little boat toward some far off, unnameable spot.

Getting well is nothing I can imagine. I just hope that the cancer—lymphoma, held at bay by light radiation—will come together in some civilized place where she can find her peace. My goal is just a few happy hours for her every day. That is what I hang onto, the task of finding one space every day where we can find a little refuge from the inevitable.

Little things; little comforts. I am always looking for new ones. There are the medicines that lift her a little, but I always say that two Bloody Marys help her more than anything prescribed. There are the weekly viewing of the “Dirty Dancing” DVD (“I’ve had the time of my life,” I sing to her sometimes, sitting on the side of her bed). There are the Peppermint Patties left under the pillow and the CD from “Phantom of the Opera” that I play in the car on the way to one of the difficult doctor’s appointments. These are the things that spell survival.

On very special days, there are our trips to the hairdresser. They lift her up a little, though they are epic journeys now, made difficult by the struggle to get her ready in the mornings, the battle to get her to the bathroom at the truck stop midway to the city. We take the dog along and every few minutes she turns toward the back seat to ask him, “Well, what are you doing?” We live in a tiny town located 125 miles away from the St. Louis suburb, Frontenac, where she used to drive in and shop at Saks. We don’t go to stores anymore, but she still enjoys looking at the fashionably dressed women at the hair salon. Watching her watch them here in this place located in an expensive neighborhood, I try not to see her longing. If, when assessing their lives, she starts to feel down, I make up something to cheer her up. “That woman with the diamond ring, you see her? She wanted to know where you got that sweater. She told me it was the prettiest sweater she has ever seen.”

“Really?” Betty asks.

“Yes,” I say. “She says she wishes she had your coloring so she could wear a sweater of that shade. She also likes your bracelets.”

“I paid good money for these bracelets,” Betty says, every time anyone mentions her jewelry.

Mostly, here at home, I have no one to talk to. I spend hours on Facebook, chatting with people whom Betty calls my imaginary friends. Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes when dealing with an older parent, it is possible to get a little … testy. It is very guilt-inducing. He or she can't help it that they are driving you a little crazy. You don't want to be mad at the person you love. So you come up with little games to take the pressure off. For example, you can pretend you are parenting someone else's parent. For example, you can pretend your mother is, say … Cher. When she is peeved at breakfast because her eggs are scrambled, not fried, you can say, "This is the way you always liked them in Vegas when you played the main room at Caesar's." This tends to throw a rogue element into the interaction. In the period of confusion, she will usually eat the eggs.

Later, if she will not get up and answer the phone, you can say, "Mother, it's Ann-Margret. The Yucca is flowering in the canyons and she wants to borrow the Ducati." This tends to bring even an older woman to her feet for whatever reason. Possibly the lure of the Italian. In the afternoon, when she is mad because the mail is not on time, you can say, "Cher, Gene Simmons is delivering the mail today and you know how he is." She will give you a freaky look, but there will be silence and you will be grateful and can plan for the evening when you plan to offer her, if she is feeling low, the opportunity to sit on top of the piano and do the number about the gypsies.

Betty is talking to Helen about another of the books she is reading, “The Secret Confessions of Ava Gardner.” “It’s the filthiest book I’ve ever read,” she says. “Would you like to borrow it? I can bring it next time.”

I wonder if we will ever be here again.

“When Ava goes to bed with a man she says they are ‘in the feathers,’” Betty says.

“Who she get in the feathers with?”

“Frank Sinatra. He was hateful. But they had a good time.”

Already, my mother is more cheerful. Maybe it was the feel of Helen’s fingers on her scalp or the warm water of the shampoo, or just having someone a little different to talk to who isn’t me or a doctor. When I return from the bathroom and the coffee place next door, she is under the dryer, her small head floating like a little planet under the black bonnet of the appliance. She smiles at me a little and slaps me on the arm as I pass—just a little piece of healthy mischief. She has always been obsessed with her appearance, but particularly her hair. The record of her styles and shades through the decades might be a cosmetology textbook, a history of American coiffure. So many years, so many Bettys. Watching her sitting there I wonder if she is thinking back on all the others, worrying about who the next one will be. I have to keep watch on her mood, to sustain this patch of cheerfulness.

I bend over to whisper, “Later we will go to Baskin Robbins for the lemon custard.”

You try to keep the boat in calm waters. Whatever it takes.

“You look fabulous,” I tell her, as Helen combs her out and she studies the mirror closely, seeing for an instant a woman who seems more familiar.

By George Hodgman

George Hodgman is the author of the bestselling book, "Bettyville: A Memoir," about caring for a mother with dementia, published by Viking Penguin.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aging Parents Caretaking Children Dementia Life Stories Missouri Motherhood Real Families