My mother is delusional. She lives in an independent, retirement home and believes that someone named Bill comes into her room every day and moves things around. When I picked her up to spend the weekend with me, I asked her if she packed her slippers. In a mater-of-fact tone, she said, “Bill put them under the couch.”
In a more hysterical tone, a few days ago when I opened her door to get her she was holding up a man's tee-shirt and screaming, “He left this in my closet!” Of course I recognized the shirt immediately. It was my husband's. She'd worn it at our house then packed it in her bag.
When I told her her mistake about the tee-shirt, her face was defiant. She was determined to show me there was other proof. She went to her dresser and said, “Who put this here?” pointing to a paper clip. “There's a handkerchief there,” jabbing the air in its direction. “I've never seen that in my life. This pillow has been moved. Now, why would I put that there? This picture frame – look! - it's crooked.” Last weekend the teapot and the stapler were in the bathroom. “I wouldn't put those in the bathroom!” she yelled.
Sometimes when I'm in the car with my children we will drive by the building my mother lived in for one year. My six-year-old reminds us, “That's where grandma used to live!” Last time he asked me why she doesn't live there anymore, so I told him.
“Grandma thought people were taking things from her room and she was bothering the other people who lived there,” I said. “They told her she had to find another place to live.”
My siblings and I hoped that a new environment, new doctors, and new medicine would stave off her hiring private detectives, phone calls to the police, threats to the administration and nurses, and pleas to the other residents for various help. (Like paying them to guard her room while she goes to the dining hall.)
Our challenge has been knowing how to respond to her delusions. It's no good just telling her she's the one moving things around, or hiding things. She won't believe us, and she blames us for not believing her. Installing a security camera did not help either. “The camera's no good. All I see is myself!”
Last summer, I took my mom and the kids to a week-long Unitarian camp for families. She was thrilled to be coming with us and was waiting with her bags packed in the lobby of her retirement home when I went to get her. I lifted up one of her bags to swing over my shoulder, but couldn't. It felt like it was packed with bricks. “Mom!” I said. “What's in here?” I unzipped the bag and found her miniature, ceramic shoe collection, her brass statue of a girl on a swing, and lots of baggies filled with jewelry.
Somehow I managed to convince her to let me help her repack. We went upstairs, kids in tow, where we took out the statue, ceramic shoes, jewelry, and winter sweaters, and laid out more appropriate clothing for a week by the lake in the heat. She did not want to leave her things behind, but she did, and we finally got out the door and to the car.
Helping my children into the car, I looked up and saw my mom walking back toward her building.
“Mom!” I shouted. She kept up her fast-paced stride.
“Mom! STOP!” She ignored me. I ran up to her.
“What are you doing?” I was beginning to feel frantic. We'd never get on the road.
“I forgot to lock my door.” She kept walking.
“No you didn't. I saw you lock it.” She stopped. I couldn't remember if I had or hadn't, but it didn't matter. “I saw you lock it, Mom. Let's go.” She finally complied.
I knew it was going to be a rough week, but I wanted to make this happen. I wanted her to enjoy herself, to forget about her living situation, to enjoy her grandchildren. I wanted to have some normal conversations with her where she was listening and responding and not always directing the conversation back to herself.
But I also knew I was going to have to swallow some pride. My mom's behavior – not just the delusion, but the desperate need to feel wanted and loved – would show itself. And I was connected to her. She was connected to me. But it doesn't matter, I told myself. We are not the same person. However she behaves is not my responsibility. Besides, if there's a group that will understand odd behavior, it's this one.
During the introduction meeting on the first night of the camp, fifty of us sat in a large circle. Each person took a turn, saying something about themselves. The words were moving closer to us. My mom's turn was fast approaching. Seconds before, she leaned over to me and whispered into my ear, “I'm going to embarrass you.” She had that naughty, gleeful look in her eyes. I knew she'd stay true to her word. And she did. She told everyone her name, then stood up and inched herself closer to the center of the circle, and started singing.
“Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light.What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?”
Then she sat down. I looked up from the spot where I had fixed my eyes on the floor, daring myself to take it in. I saw people nod. I saw them thinking to themselves, Yeah, we've got an odd one on our hands, but it's okay. It's okay. We can go with that. These were Unitarians after all.
I struggled with her being there that week. She was upset that she couldn't make phone calls. She got up every night in our small cabin to turn on the light and look for things. She tossed and turned in her sleep. She ate an ice cream cone just before dinner and – no longer hungry – watched us regretfully as we ate a healthy meal. She was like a child who needed constant supervision. The saddest part about the week was that she couldn't hear most of the conversations, having lost her hearing aids.
Still, there were moments during the week – and there are moments even now – when my mom was just my mom. There were times when she appeared totally normal and herself, her true self. Like when she lay in the hammock with the boys and read them a story. Another such moment was when the group were sharing thoughts aloud and one more time, my mother took her turn. I stared at the floor again, preparing myself for another – I don't know what. How was she going to embarrass me this time? She stood up.
“I'd like to say how proud I am of my son-in-law, Regina's husband,” she said, turning to look at me. “He's in Afghanistan right now making a sacrifice for us all. He is there for us, for all of us. I'm proud of him, as we all should be.” Then she took her seat.
In that moment, she'd come out of the woods. Her words were eloquent and lucid. She spoke earnestly and compassionately. It was my mom, come back. I squeezed her hand when she sat back down, and she squeezed mine.