When A Mother Forgets

A little over a month ago my mother called me late one night, around 9:00 p.m. She asked, “Where are you and where am I? Why is all my furniture in this place?” She was in her independent senior living apartment that she’s lived in for more than two and a half years. But she was seriously confused and disoriented. I was concerned, of course, but not surprised. There had been similar episodes before, but none quite that bad.

Shortly after we moved to this area in 2016, I took Momma to her first podiatrist appointment. While I was filling out the new patient form for her, I asked her how tall she was to fill in that blank. She said rather matter-of-factly: “Nine feet.” Other patients in the waiting room chuckled. Momma was not laughing; neither was she joking or “walking tall” to display self-confidence. I said, “Momma, you’re not nine feet tall! How tall are you?” She said, “Maybe, seven feet then.” That was probably the first time I really knew she was showing some symptoms of dementia. Mom and Me Wolfhart

Episodes of confusion like that would flare up again here and there, but not all that often. She’s had trouble, and the frustration that goes along with it, of learning how to do new things. Even a new can opener became a major obstacle last year.

I have kept an eye on her finances and medicine, but she seemed to manage it okay until a little over a month ago. We set all her bills up on a monthly draft, with the exception of her rent payment. She paid it on time every month until last month. She also wrote out her tithe check each month, although there have been a few times she made it out with the name of the community instead of the name of the church.

When I received that call from her a little over a month ago, I called her day time senior care facility, which is part of a program called P.A.C.E. through the United Church of Christ. It’s designed to help people stay at home as long as possible. They take care of their elderly clients primary medical care and prescriptions at their facility. I talked with a nurse, who thought it might just be a urinary tract infection causing this flareup of extreme confusion.

The antibiotic treatment didn’t really clear things up though. The confusion and memory loss has only worsened. Her memories from the distant past are getting mixed in with the present. She sometimes thinks she’s living in Stokes County where she grew up and lived all her life until 2008. She asks me to take her to the bank in King to get some checks every day. She wants me to give her her medicine and let her manage it herself, but she can’t remember taking it just a few hours before. She doesn’t know what day or even what month it is. It seems she thinks everyday is Saturday—she’ll ask about going to church the next day frequently.

She’s surprised that Benjamin, our nine month old, is her grand baby, even though she was asking to see him specifically just a couple of months ago. She insists we never told her he was born. Last week she mistook my wife, Christi, for my first cousin, Denise.; not Denise as she is now, but Denise Edwards (her maiden name) from many, many years ago. At times it’s been so bad that my mother has even been confused about who I am. The first time that happened, I felt a loss I haven’t felt before.

As a pastor I have ministered to people and families who have had this same struggle. Dementia and Alzheimer’s affects every person a bit differently as they go through the different stages. At times, I have had people say that their loved one with memory loss and confusion is not the same person anymore. But the truth is the person really is still the same person, and, most importantly, the same person with the same dignity.

From the Christian perspective a person’s identity and worth is not tied to their physical or mental capacities in the present moment. Our identity and worth as individuals is first found in our beginning as humans created in the image of God; our identity and worth is also bound up in God’s intended destiny for us as people renewed in the image of God in the new heaven and earth. Sin distorts the image of God in us, but it does not eradicate it. The curse, which is the result of sin, diminishes our capacities morally, physically, and mentally. That is true for all of us. But the curse will not remain forever.

Our identity and worth is in our beginning as people created in the image of God and in our final destination as God’s renewed image-bearers in the new creation, not in our diminished capacities, no matter how severe, in this present fallen world. Yet in our minds in our fallen state, we place more stock in the latter rather than the former. We value ourselves relative to others in this world. We believe our identity and worth is tied to our abilities, that our identity can be lost in the chaos of life under the curse. But our identity does not fade with our memories; our diminished and diminishing capacities do not diminish our worth.

The last few weeks have been incredibly hard. I’m an only child with a wife and six children of my own. Our life is already quite busy to say the least. I have had to stay with Momma every night. I have to give her medicine to her twice a day. I have to make sure she eats among other things. And Momma can’t remember that she can’t remember. She doesn’t feel like there is anything wrong (technical term is anosognosia). So she gets very frustrated and irritated sometimes. And in the midst of care giving, I have had to jump through the hoops of bureaucracy. We have three more weeks yet before I can get her into an assisted living facility. Thankfully, she will be in one just three miles from our home. Amazingly, in addition to all the other things going on, I also discovered a couple of weeks ago that her burial insurance policy was canceled!

The insurance company confused my mother with one of their other policyholders with the exact same name (including the middle name) and birth date when that person deceased. They missed the fact that the social security number was different. Thankfully, the policy was reinstated yesterday, but not without a lot of initiation and followup on my part.

It’s moments like this that remind us of just how fragile and fleeting our identities are in this world. Fallen people in our fallen world will be confused about their own identity and worth and the identity and worth of other people. Some may wonder if individual identities really are all that significant? Are we all just a meaningless mass of humanity? Our identities and worth, however, do not depend on our place in the minds of other people, in the data banks of insurance companies, or in the annals of history. After just a few generations most people who have lived are no longer remembered even by people in their own family line. Do you know the name of your great, great grandmother or grandfather without looking it up? Some may; most won’t.

Thankfully, our identities and worth do not depend on the memories of people, but on the mind of God that never fails. When our bodies wither and our minds dim to the point of total disintegration in this world, our unique individual existence remains secure in the God who raises the dead.

My mother may not remember who I am, but I  know who she is. But even if my mind loses its grip on the memory of her, or it is completely lost among my great, great grandchildren, her identity and worth is forever secure in the mind of God. Through  faith in Jesus Christ and in the waters of baptism, Betty Wall was identified as a child of God.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. 1 John 3:1-3 ESV

In hope her life “is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3), who, unlike her life insurance company, will never confuse her with someone else.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15

10 thoughts on “When A Mother Forgets

  1. Cliff thank you for this indepth look into dementia. It helped me. I know my Mom is still my Mom even when she doesn’t. Prayers for you and Miss Betty. We love you.

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  2. Thanks, Cliff, for sharing the struggle…It is not uncommon until it hits a family member…then it becomes very real a difficult.. Blessings on you and Betty.

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  3. Cliff, this is beautiful and eye-opening. It brought me to tears as you reminded us so perfectly that our identity is always secure in Christ. May the Lord continue to bless you with patience, faith, and love that goes the distance.

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  4. I hear your frustration. One thought…to relieve a bit of the frustration when she says something like she is 9 ft tall rather than just agree with her just say okay thanks. Does it really matter? You can put down five foot seven or five foot eight or whatever you think her height might be, and it alleviates the frustration that you both might be feeling. If she calls you by a cousin’s name except that and just continue to talk with her. To try and correct her makes no sense to her. That’s part of the support of someone with dementia and Alzheimer’s is learning to let them be who they think they are at the moment. They know nothing else but you do.

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    1. Emma, the height thing was over two and a half years ago and the first time I noticed confusion like that. Like everyone else in the waiting room I initially thought she was kidding. After her second response I realized otherwise and just guessed her height as you suggested. I have and do try to accommodate her the best I can. I realize correcting her unnecessarily is an excercise in futility at this point. We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances.

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  5. Cliff, I am a friend of Greg and April Shaeffer from Bank’s United Church. We came with them to church quite a few times when you were their pastor. My husband, Ethan, or Pappy as April and Greg call him is in the severe stage of Alzheimers. I care for him with assistance from April’s mother 2 mornings a week. I can relate to nearly everything you said. I feel and have experienced nearly everything you talked about. I know you do the best you can and so do I, but there is still that sense of wanting to reach them. The teacher in me makes me want to try one more thing when I should just quit and let it go. Please know you are thought of and sincerely cared for. The Bible says,”Once a man. Twice a child” Truer words have never been written. Take care of yourself.

    Dee Mayes

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