The Illogical Song

A Swift Current The day my mother saw Natalie Cole at the nursing home and other unsettling revelations

Every time I crossed her threshold, I knew was entering an alternate reality –Painting by Vuillard, 1891

Hallie, guess what? Natalie Cole visited the nursing home this week!

Oh, Mama, I don’t think so. I don’t think Natalie Cole was at your nursing home…

But she was! She is so beautiful. I almost told her I knew her father, but I didn’t want to bother her.

Oh, Mama…

In the early days, I tried to counter every offbeat comment with a careful, measured explanation. On issues large and small, I tried to steer my mother’s thinking.

And when that failed, I tried to prompt her words. I thought if I spoke calmly–slowly–rationally, I could put her mind on the right track.

I thought I could talk her back to reality.

Do you remember?

Do you understand?

Listen to me!

But I was the one who needed to listen.

I was the one who needed to understand.

During my first visit to the nursing home, she excitedly told me that she had been to lunch that week at UCLA, her alma mater. As she described her adventure, I interrupted:

No, Mama, you didn’t go to UCLA this week. It’s too far. You were here all week; you live here.

I did so go to UCLA!

No, you didn’t.

Hallie! How can you say I wasn’t there? I was with Kaye and Florence and Mary. We talked about where we would live next…

No, Mama, you were here.

I went to UCLA! I have a letter. My friends’ names are on the letterhead. I will show you the letter!

She was angry; agitated; combative.

And I was responsible.

I had transformed a happy conversation into a confused, volatile encounter. Even worse, I had ignored her most significant words;

her most revealing thought:

We talked about where we would live next.

If I had been truly listening, I would have realized that Kaye, Florence and Mary were friends from her college honors society. She had invoked a stellar academic achievement of her youth, as well as the blessing of her lifelong friends, at this critical juncture in her life.

As with many of her fantastical revelations, there was a core truth in my mother’s statements. I didn’t realize it then– but it was my job to parse her words; ponder her meaning; find her reality.

It was my job to listen.

The core truth: my mother needed to decide where to live next.

She needed to own this decision.

If she insisted she had discussed her dilemma at lunch–with her friends–on their beloved college campus–

what difference does it make?

If that imaginary lunch led to her very real decision, who cares?

She cared.

Years later, she enthusiastically grabbed her nurse’s hand and proclaimed:

You know, before I came here, I did careful research, and this is the very best place in Los Angeles.

Not one word of that sentence was true.

All of it was true.

I began to understand that every time I crossed the threshold of the nursing home, I entered an alternate reality

Hallie, Hallie, guess what? I am going to be honored by UCLA!

Really? UCLA is honoring you? What’s the occasion?

I am being honored for my contributions to the field of basketball! They must have read about me!

Oh, Mama, that’s wonderful! What will you wear?

During our decade of dementia, I could never becompletely sure about my mother’s fantasy world. I learned that unsettling truth just a few weeks after Natalie Cole’s purported visit.

I was reading the nursing home’s newsletter. The Resident of the Month turned out to be a songwriter.

(Wait…a songwriter?)

Not only was she a songwriter, but she was in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

(oh no…)

My eyes glazed over as I read the next words. The Resident of the Month had written hit songs for several artists

(Oh Mama…)

among the artists

(I never should have doubted you)

the great

Natalie Cole.

My mother and her UCLA friends were deciding 'where to live next'--the women of the UCLA honors economics sorority, 1937..."

My mother and her friends were deciding ‘where to live next’–The women of the UCLA honors economics sorority, 1937: –Only those women who are Economics majors and who have a very high scholastic average are eligible for membership…”

I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Natalie Cole. I have made minor edits to this post, originally written three years ago. My mother had indeed met her father, Nat Cole, as she and my dad attended the Capitol Records annual Christmas gathering at the home of the company’s president in the early days of Capitol. My mom reported that Nat Cole used to play the piano and sing at these gatherings– a favorite Christmas memory, long before dementia imbued every memory with doubt.


12 thoughts on “The Illogical Song

  1. Thank you, Kirsty. I cannot claim that I ever completely stopped “correcting” my mother’s missatements…I will discuss this in more depth later. At times, I just could not let my Mom’s version of events go unchallenged even though I knew it wouldn’t do any good to contradict her.

    I promise to take a look at your blog, though I am trying not to examine other writing at this stage as I want this initial writing to be about our experience. I don’t want to take people’s ideas. However, at some point I plan to make this a broader forum for other observations/analysis, articles, blogs, websites, etc.

    Just this last week there was a widely circulated article in the NY Times about grief for the death of an elderly relative–the theme from an earlier post here, Be Careful What You Wish For. But I only skimmed the NY Times piece for the same reason…I plan to continue to explore that topic at some point and don’t want other writing to confuse me! I was happy to find however that there are people (with slightly greater circulation!) thinking along the same lines. Thank you again, Hallie

  2. Oh, such good advice. Today I spent the morning with my Daddy (turning 90 in June, still living on his own…with help) and while going thru the mail found a “thank you” note from a prominent employee of the USC Business (Marshall) School, thanking my Dad for his time during their recent visit. Thinking this was just another solicitation for money (my Mom and Dad both graduated in the 1940’s from the business program at USC (before it had a fancy name!), I said to my Dad: “Daddy, you didn’t talk to anyone from USC recently, did you?” To my total amazement, he replied “Yes…to two very nice ladies who visited me. They said they were in the neighborhood (!) and wanted to know all about my time at USC and my business experience afterward.” Well, needless to say, I was dumbfounded. Had he just told me this had happened, I probably would have assumed he’d dreamed it! My brother and I have lectured him repeatedly on not opening the front door to strangers…for all I know they had called ahead and made an appointment. Thank goodness a note on real letterhead, along with a business card was there! So often, I correct him…your words really hit home for me. Thank you!

    • Hi Joanie, Thank you for sharing this ancedote…part of the frustration/confusion for family members is discerning what is real and what is fantasy. In many cases you never figure out which is which. I know I underestimated my Mom’s ability to 1) know and 2) convey what was going on. Then of course there were the fantasies (I will discuss this in more depth in the future) that were clearly not real (literally) but the stories were communicating a message (figuratively). These stories were essentially allegories.

      I tried to describe that dilemma in this post; if I read between/into the lines, she was trying to convey a bigger meaning though the specific details might be completely made up (or have come from a dream, or a news broadcast, or another source). I will give you an example: once when I arrived at the nursing home, she was frantic as she relayed the that my cousins had called wanting her to babysit. She had called my aunt in Seattle who was coming to LA so they could babysit together. But no one had arrived. How could they do that to her? Why hadn’t they called? Were they in a horrible accident?

      I tried to talk her from the ledge. But I couldn’t really; she was convinced of her story and she was furious at everyone. Looking back, maybe her panic involved her role in the family. Maybe she thought they didn’t visit enough (note: they actually visited a lot!) because of course visits would be forgotten. Maybe someone called, mentioned the baby, and it was translated into this story. Or maybe she saw a sitcom the night before and transposed the whole thing!

      But the bottom line of my observation is this: there was often truth in even the most fantastical moments. And it was my job to discern the truth. I don’t claim I was always good at it; but I think if we look at our elderly that way, it is step one to facilitating communication…What are you really trying to say to me?

  3. I have a friend and you know her, who has just started going through the same with her Mother and it is very painful and not understandable for her. I am sending her your blog to read and hopefully it will be less painful for her. My friend’s Mother went to do her nightly face cleanup in the bathroom and after taking much too long, a relative checked on her to find she had put toothpaste and comet all over her face! This brings back so many memories of the last 2 weeks of my Mothers life!

    • Thank you again for your encouragement of my efforts. As you know from these posts, I was incredulous and in denial and fearful as my Mother’s disease became apparent. I would have liked a forum like this–just to know I wasn’t alone, and be alert to what might happen next. I hope this writing helps your friend and I welcome you to share it.

      I will never claim that I completely understood what was going on…but I saw certain patterns and developed certain responses that made both our lives easier. As I look back, it is confounding that I didn’t find resources to coach me in this (maybe they are out there now); I learned on my own that contradiction led to fights and upset; calm soothing agreement (my acceptance of the imaginary) could (but didn’t always) led to a reasonably pleasant interaction.

      I think because the person with dementia looks pretty much the same on the outside, we expect them to act like a socialized adult person. We forget that they are no longer in control of their actions (like the toothpaste and comet). We forget the disease is taking over, and we chide them. Or get angry and frustrated at them. You know better! But actually, they don’t know better. I will talk about this more in future posts…Thank you, Hallie

  4. Pingback: Helpful Sites & Support | Living with Dementia

  5. Yes. This was a wonderful post! Join her in her happiness rather than fight to preserve our “reality”. I am now a teacher at my high school alma mater, which was just a five minute drive from my mother’s senior residence where she lived until she passed away in 1998. Sometimes I would go to visit her on my lunch hour. Here’s how the conversation invariably went:

    “Well, Mom, It’s time for me to go back to work.”
    “Where do you work now, dear?”
    “Immaculate Heart High School.”
    “Isn’t that where you went to school?”
    “Well, isn’t that nice?” (Smiling)

    I realized eventually that rather than correct, or attempt to align her with the reality that we’d just established this fact yesterday, and the day before, and the day before, it was oh, so much kinder and so much more pleasant for both of us to simply affirm this and watch her be happy to learn it over and over again. She never tired of the pleasure that this fact of my life gave her. I know that this is hard to do at first, but once one accepts things as they are, these conversations become treasured memories

    And now this is one of my fondest memories of our later and last years together.

    • Thank you so much, Maria, for your comment. I think you underscore several points I am trying to make, not the least of which is understanding who is the one actually creating friction in these interactions…and to what end?

      And you introduce a crucial point, one of my themes actually: as off-base as these conversations might seem at the time, they do grow to become, as you say, “treasured memories.”

      And I think it is one of the reasons the last decade of my Mom’s life is so special to me, and I hope to elaborate on it in future postings (though you did a great job right here!). And that is that despite all the turmoil and unhappiness created by this disease, in the last decade the bonds between us became deeper; whether from spending more time together or the fact that her needs were among my greatest concerns. Our exchanges, however at times repetitive, nonsensical or even silent, became some of my fondest memories as well. It is as though there was an unspoken understanding between us, and that we both could set aside all the residual issues, and just be together.

      But I have to add: I do not want to mislead readers by creating an overly optimistic description of our decade. A significant part of my Mom’s battle with dementia included fantasies that caused her anguish, and had no basis of truth in her then-current reality. But they tormented her, and it was painful to witness. I will discuss examples of this in the future. But I should add that even though I knew that contradicting her would lead to friction, at times I could not bear to let some of her statements stand. But as I had learned, challenging her only led to more upheaval. It was a vicious circle, emphasis on “vicious.”

      Our ordeal brought both moments of tremendous grace and transcendence and moments of complete confusion and sorrow. But I do believe that the more one can accept (even the nonsensical) and not argue, the more likely you are to transform difficult moments into “treasured memories.”

      Thank you again for sharing your experience and reflections.

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