Mother’s Day has come and gone for another year. Depending on where you are in your life, the day is marked in very different ways. When my children were little, it was handmade cards and the boys “catering” breakfast. I can remember the menus that were written, even before they had the words to write, for me to review and make choices—generally between toast and Cheerios! Now that they’re older, it’s about the beautiful cards that come in the mail, the phone calls and the chance—when possible—to spend some time with them and with their families. It’s a day that has sweet memories and often makes more memories to store for the future.
But Mother’s Day is also bittersweet. For days before that date, Facebook is filled with men and women posting messages about how much they miss their mother, how they wish they still had the opportunity for another conversation, another hug, another Mother’s Day—or any day—together. For those of us whose mothers are no longer living, it is a day to recognize that hole in our lives and pay tribute to their memory.
For others, however, Mother’s Day can be a day of complex emotions. Those who are managing care of a mother who has dementia sometimes tell us that this kind of special day is a painful one, reminding them of what they are missing, reminding them of the mother they “used to have.” So often people will say “I just want my mother back” or “I wish you had known her ‘before.’” The loss of the person they have known is profound and difficult. The tasks of care and the heartbreak of cognitive decline can feel overwhelming.
It is no easy feat to focus on what there is instead of what there is not. It is no easy feat to look at a person you love and have loved your entire life, and see that they are not the same and that they will never be the same again. Grieving is not confined to the time after someone dies as we well know.
Yet when we work with families, there are things we can do and ways that we can help. It helps, first and foremost, to seek and use outside assistance when you need it. We often talk about letting “family be family,” rather than caregivers and that does make a tremendous difference. Separating yourself from the hard work of physical care can allow you to have a different relationship with your loved one. There are also many supports and tools that can assist you in bridging that space between you and a person with dementia. Meeting them where they are, remembering that we are all “doing the best that we can,” understanding that this is the disease and not their choice, can all help. And having someone to talk to who can support you and coach you also matters. A friend, a family member, a professional—this is a journey on which we all need support.
We talk about dementia as a family diagnosis because the impact reaches so far, it is a very large stone dropped into a body of previously calm water and the ripples are significant. With help, support and knowledge, Mother’s Day can still be a day to celebrate—to celebrate the person who is still there, to celebrate what was and to celebrate what remains.