Using the Past to Improve the Present

In the last post, I described how I was able to use Mom’s love for keeping secrets to smooth the process of getting her to bed. That’s just one example of a miraculous phenomenon:

The past, even the less attractive parts of it, can be a powerful tool to gain our loved ones’ cooperation in the present.

Let me start by explaining how I think the keeping-secrets strategy worked. For most of my adult life, whenever Mom and I were together in a family gathering, she wanted me to come with her when she went to the bathroom. Back then she didn’t need my help. She just wanted to talk, to discuss things—usually inconsequential things—outside my father’s hearing. She did the same thing with my sister; we used to smile about it. I think talking “in secret” gave Mom a feeling of power. She knew things Dad didn’t know.

Unusual? Maybe. But it was a routine Mom and I practiced for years, without even thinking about it. And while I don’t know the science of where and why and how that routine was stored in Mom’s brain, I know from experience that if I told Dad in a firm voice he couldn’t come with us and then spoke in a whisper to Mom and took her arm, I could lead her to the bathroom or the bedroom or almost anywhere in the house we needed to go. Did it work every time? No. But it worked often enough that I began using other old habits and idiosyncrasies of Mom’s to smooth the rough path of Alzheimer’s.

Her green sweater, for instance. She wore it for probably twenty years, partly, I fear, because Dad begged her to get a new one. The fuzzy “pills” that covered it were the size of English peas. One shoulder seam had been mended so many times, the left side of the sweater was shorter than the right. Thank goodness for the distraction of mismatched buttons and raveling buttonholes. But—on difficult mornings, I could sometimes entice Mom to get dressed by adding the green sweater to the stack of clean clothes.

Another example: When I was a child, I could always count on Mom to have a tissue when I needed one. She was almost obsessive about having a pack of them close at hand. For a long time, even Alzheimer’s didn’t keep Mom from collecting tissues. She raided boxes at the doctor’s office and napkin dispensers at fast food restaurants. She folded her treasures with care and squirreled them away in the pocket of her slacks, in her otherwise empty purse, or in the already bulging pockets of the green sweater. Though this practice could be embarrassing, especially when Mom snatched a napkin from the table of some unsuspecting diner, it too proved helpful. If Mom grew angry for some reason when we were in public, I could grab a tissue from my purse and hold it out to her, saying, “Mom, do you want this tissue? I found it over there. Maybe we can find more.” The tissue claimed, or at least divided, her attention long enough to cool her anger.

Though Mom couldn’t seem to come up with the old habits on her own, they appeared to strike a comforting chord in her mind when we replayed them for her. Using even the irritating idiosyncrasies of the past, we were better able to handle the more severe problems of the present.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me….You are familiar with all my ways.       (Ps. 139 1,3 NIV)

Where would we be without Your wisdom, Lord? Alzheimer’s is a mystery to us, but not to You. Open our minds to Your inspiration. Thank You for continuing to guide us in the care of those we love.