My mom the strip-tease
I thought I’d seen it all when John and I took his mother to the movies once while she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. We were waiting for her to exit the ladies’ room when I saw her coming toward us with a maxi pad — yes, a white maxi pad — adhered to the outside and front of her pants. Naturally I rushed over and gently but firmly ushered her back into the bathroom to set things straight. Never mind why a woman in her 60s was wearing a maxi pad; I just wanted to give her some of her dignity back. But I was wrong. About having seen it all, that is, because today I saw — well, as my friend Warren would say, “Let me set the stage.”
My mother is in town for a week. Actually she, my sister and aunt are here. Knowing that one of Mom’s favorite things is to swim, Warren and his partner Steve graciously offered up their pool “for as many days” as we want while Mom’s here. Warren even went as far as saying that he was honored to help us make some more good memories with Mom while we are still able to do so. (Prophetic words? I wonder now.) I took them up on it, and we spent a couple of hours in the water today after Warren finished his work day. Though Steve was out, Warren was a hit with my family; he’d set up floats and noodles for us, as well as a cooler for our drinks. The two dogs were popular, too, especially Kramer, who swam laps around us every so often.
But one thing the dementia has done to my mom is shorten her patience to that of a toddler’s; she’s all about instant gratification. So, when she suddenly wanted out of the pool, she wanted out immediately. And I had to help her out of the pool so that was the end of my water fun, as well. The other thing is that the finer nuances of language escape her; she doesn’t read between the lines, and context is losing its meaning. We try to be very literal, very clear and very simple in our explanations and requests with her, though sometimes that backfires. Add to that her fading boundaries and disappearing sense of what is acceptable behavior in public and you’ve got a great recipe for what happened next. I guess it’s a good thing that we were not at a public pool full of people because when I got Mom out of the water, settled her in a chair in the shade and said, “Dry yourself off a little bit so you can go in and change,” she took me at my word. She promptly tugged her swimsuit bottom halfway down her legs and began drying off.
I’m sure I sounded shrill as I sputtered and begged her to pull her pants back up. In fact I tried for a moment to pull them up for her, but she’s strong and she fought me. I tried to explain that undressing in front of other people isn’t proper. “But they’re wet,” she said, letting her bottom pool around her ankles. “That’s why I told you to dry off a bit before going inside,” I said. She continued drying off. “There’s a man out here,” I hissed. “Do you want him to see you?” That went completely over her head. She really had no clue why I was so horrified. Warren, bless his heart, went in the house so I could dress my mother in his backyard, and she finally pulled her swimsuit back up.
My sister says Mom would have pulled her pants down regardless of what I said, and that it had nothing to do with my instructions. She may be right. Sometimes the only predictable thing about this disease seems to be its unpredictability — at least as far as my mom’s behavior is concerned. I thought I was getting better at dealing with it, but just when I think I have a handle on this Alzheimer’s thing, it takes me for a loop.
I’m grateful to have friends who understand that this is an illness and that my mother literally has no control over her actions. Warren took it all in stride. When we left his house, my mom and aunt showered him with a true Mexican good-bye that included hugs, kisses, thank-yous and multiple blessings and prayers for his guardian angels to watch over him. He invited them back.
But here’s the funny thing. Earlier, after the swimsuit incident when I had finally gotten my mom in the guest bedroom and was helping her dress, she needed to use the bathroom. The others were still swimming. She and I were alone in the quiet house. The bathroom was literally two or three feet away from the bedroom, so I suggested we skip those two steps down the hall and she finish dressing there. “No,” my mom said. “I’m not dressed and someone might see me.”