The Reluctant Caregiver: When the Brain is Living in Another Time

Recently, when Mom asked me the date — as she often does — she said, “Cathy’s birthday is tomorrow.”

Cathy was Mom’s first cousin who was raised by Mom’s parents from the age of four.  In reality, they were sisters, although Mom was 14 years older.

The next day, Mom asked me the date.  Although she has a “memory clock” that informs her of the day of the week, the date and time, whenever we are together or talk on the phone, she asks me the date about four times.  That’s because she forgets about the clock that expresses the precise date.

“Today’s Cathy’s birthday,” Mom said.  “I wish Cathy and Kenny would come visit me, but they probably can’t afford it.”

I was in her closet, hanging up her clothes.

“Probably not,” I answered.

This would seem like a normal conversation under usual circumstances.  However, Cathy died in 2008 at age 56 after a long battle with leukemia.  It wasn’t the leukemia that killed her; a blood stem cell transplant cured her of the cancer.  But years of chemotherapy weakened her organs, and she succumbed to heart failure.

In 2008, I drove Mom to Cathy’s funeral.  She was there and mourned with Cathy’s husband, children, grandchildren and other relatives and friends.  Cathy’s widowered husband, Kenny, has since remarried.

In their later lives, Cathy and Kenny were financially secure, traveling and enjoying themselves despite her disabilities from her illness.  In their younger days, when they were first married, they struggled as many young couples do.

It is the young, newlywed Cathy and Kenny that Mom’s mind remembers. The disease of dementia has destroyed the part of Mom’s brain that remember’s Cathy’s illness and ultimate death.  The part of Mom’s brain that stores the memories of Cathy’s young married life is the one that survives.

I told the story to a friend, who asked me why I didn’t tell her that Cathy was dead.  Couldn’t she learn that Cathy is dead?

The answer is No.  Mom has dementia and isn’t capable of learning new things.  The part of her brain that remembers Cathy’s demise is destroyed.  She has stored her memories of Cathy is an area of her brain that is not yet damaged — but it’s the section that remembers Cathy’s youthful newlywed days.

My rationale is that it is better for Mom to remember Cathy as a young newlywed instead of the middle-aged woman lying in her casket at the funeral home in 2008.

Dementia destroys memories.  But sometimes it destroys the painful memories and leaves the pleasant ones to live on forever.

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