I decided to write about this topic today because it’s something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. Over the past four and a half years of dealing with my Mom’s Alzheimer’s, I have discovered several coping mechanisms. Talking to others about my Mom’s illness, writing this blog, and raising awareness are just a few. Another coping mechanism I have found is lowering my expectations of my Mom. This is a fairly new concept to me and I still have to remind myself of it almost daily. However, I have found it to be significantly beneficial to me when dealing with my Mom’s Alzheimer’s.
For you to better grasp this concept, let me first explain to you the kind of mother my Mom was before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My Mom and Dad tried for about fifteen years to get pregnant (15?!) before they finally had my sister. About two months after giving birth to her, my Mom found out that she was pregnant with me. My sister and I are only eleven months apart. We used to joke that we must have been adopted, but there are pictures to prove that theory wrong. Once my parents had us, we were their whole world. They made many sacrifices for us throughout the years. My Dad worked full-time to provide for us financially and my Mom stayed at home to raise us. She did more than just that. Growing up, my Mom was the kind of mom that everyone dreamed of. She did everything for us around the house and made dinner for us each night, although she hated to cook (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree on that one!). She made us breakfast in the morning and packed our lunches the night before. She woke us up each day by singing and curled our hair under so that we always looked put together. She picked us up from school each day and, in the warmer months, would stop to get us water ice on the way home. She never told us “no.” Often times, we would find some kind of small present waiting for us on our beds after school. It might be a new shirt or outfit, a new toy, or a new beach towel for the summer. She loved to surprise us. She bought us cards for literally every single holiday, along with a small gift. She went all out for Christmas. We always had tons and tons of perfectly wrapped presents to open. She chaperoned our field trips, volunteered in the cafeteria, and was a familiar face around our school. She continued to be this kind of mom into high school and college. She was always there for us when we needed her, but she also knew when to butt out. I remember calling her drunk at two in the morning one time when I was in college because I was upset over my grandfather’s recent passing. She not only answered the phone, but she talked to me until I felt better. When I was home from college, we would go to lunch, go shopping, or see a movie together. She had become more of my friend and less of my mother. She was ever-present and willing to help us in any way that she could.
Needless to say, times have changed. I cannot expect the same out of my Mom now. Obviously, I have grown up and am married now so our relationship would have been different anyway. However, I often wonder what it would be like if she didn’t have Alzheimer’s. What would our adult relationship have been like? I think about what it would be like to get a text or an email from her. What would it be like to receive a card for St. Patrick’s Day from her? Or any other insignificant holiday for that matter? What would it be like to receive a card from her that I knew she carefully chose herself instead of knowing that my Dad had picked it out? What would it be like to be able to actually read what she wrote inside of that card? I often think about how different it would be to go to lunch, shopping, or to the movies with her now if she didn’t have Alzheimer’s. Maybe she would pick me up from my house and we would chit chat the whole way to the restaurant and throughout our meal. Maybe I wouldn’t have to stare at her willing myself to find something, anything, to talk to her about. Our phone conversations wouldn’t be one-sided like they are now. I wouldn’t have to buy and wrap Christmas presents for my Dad from her and sneak them under their tree, as I have done in the past. I wouldn’t have to go into a fitting room or bathroom stall with her to show her what to do and help her do it. I wouldn’t have to cut her food up for her or hold her hand while we’re walking through a parking lot or crowded store. The list goes on.
These constant thoughts of what once was and what might have been are enough to drive me insane. If that’s all I ever think about, I’m sure to ruin our time together. Every phone call, conversation, or day out will always come up short. The holidays and birthdays will never be good enough. I will always leave her feeling empty and unfulfilled. I’m setting our “new” relationship up for failure. But, what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if I gave my Mom a little credit and cut her a lot of slack? By lowering my expectations of her and our time together, there is hope that it will be better than I had anticipated. It might seem harsh to say, but now, I don’t expect anything at all from her. When she forgot my birthday last year, I wasn’t that upset because I didn’t expect her to remember it. Same goes for this year. I can’t even tell you how much it meant to me that this year, not only did she call me, but she sang “Happy Birthday” to me. And, she remembered all the words. In the past, I would often call my Mom and expect to have this great, long conversation with her. But now, I don’t expect anything at all from our conversations other than that she will probably ask me the same thing thirty-seven times. I would say that nine times out of ten, our conversations are basically meaningless and unfulfilling. But, that tenth conversation, the one where we really connect and she seems totally with it, means THAT much more to me. My Mom and I will often go to get our hair done together. I’ll pick her up and we’ll drive to our long time stylist/family friend’s house. I used to always have these high expectations. I would stop to get us hot chocolate before I picked her up, but she wouldn’t touch it and it would just get cold. I would expect great conversations and a great lunch together. One time at lunch, I got so upset over something so stupid that I got her and walked out of the restaurant without even eating. I beat myself up over it for a long time and told myself I would never do that again. My expectations of our lunches out are now much lower. And, guess what. I have never made her leave a restaurant again. We always have a nice lunch and she always raves about how good her salad was, even though she has the exact same thing every time we go.
My point is that I cannot expect the same behavior out of my Mom now that she has Alzheimer’s. There are many things that she is no longer able to do. I would be an ignorant asshole if I thought any differently. Having these high expectations of her will only make her feel inadequate and myself unfulfilled. By lowering my expectations, I find that I am often pleasantly surprised. My best friend once told me (in reference to a completely unrelated situation) that everything doesn’t always have to be so perfect. She is so right. Many great things in life come from imperfection. My Mom is going to have more bad days than good in terms of her illness. Why make those bad days any worse by putting unfair pressure on her and my time with her to be perfect? No matter what, I guarantee you that my Mom thinks our time together IS perfect. She never has a bad time when she spends it with those she loves. By lowering my expectations, I am allowing her to be exactly who she is now and I’m not putting any pressure on her to be different. I’m not as disappointed when something doesn’t go right or I don’t get anything out of it. The good days and the moments of clarity are that much better when they come unexpectedly. The lower my expectations are, the greater the chance that she will surprise me. And, let me tell you, she is full of surprises.