When Mom Put the Soap in the 'Fridge...

Candy Tin

...an understandable mistake - I had stored the bars in a candy tin for protection in my luggage. After arriving in town and showing the folks my latest artsy soap designs, we moved into the living room, leaving the tin in the kitchen. I didn't discover it was gone until later, when I attempted to retrieve it to give everyone their soap.

Apparently Mom had be tidying up and thought the tin held candy, and so put it in the refrigerator (Dad discovered it later while looking for a beverage). Logical enough. No harm done. A mistake any of us could make.

Except, when I opened the tin and handed their soap to her, Mom looked genuinely confused: "Do these go back in the refrigerator?"

My parents had moved into a Senior Independent Living community about a year and a half before. Great place, lovely community - and just in time, as Mom's memory was starting to slip. I had been making the trip back every two months or so to check-in, visit and help out where I could.

But circumstances were such that I wasn't able to get back for about 5 months, - I was alarmed at her memory deterioration since my last visit.

We're lucky - we have assistance in place for my Dad (who by far has the most stressful job as primary caregiver), they have local caring friends, and family, and the facility has a Memory Care unit if/when we get to that point. 

But there's an ache. Mom's reality is shifting. She wants to "go Home" - not to their previous address of 40+ years, but to the house she grew up in. Gently correcting her causes agitation. There are other, more telling incidents... (Have a family member with dementia? You get it.)

When I returned to Colorado, I shared my deep sadness with a friend. She recommended I listen to a clip called Rainy Days and Mondays from the podcast series, This American Life (episode 532, "Magic Words"). The story centers around Karen Stobbe, her husband Mondy, two improv actors, and Karen's mother Virginia, who had dementia and was now living with them.

Like everyone else in their situation, Karen and Mondy had to find a way to navigate through Karen's Mother's bewilderment and distrust of the world in which she was now living. Their solution appeared in the basic rules of improv - "Step into their World," "Always say yes, never say no," "Accept a gift." 

In other words, rather than pushing the patient to recognize (our) reality, improv allows us to move into the wilderness with them. So, instead of insisting that their present residence is her home now, the rules of improv would have me respond to my Mom this way: "Yes, tell me about your home."

I am not an improv actor. Gaining some level of mastery of these techniques will take practice. The clip from the podcast provided lots of interesting examples of what Karen and Mondy did -  much was trial and error - but it's a direction to try.

Karen and Mondy's story has a powerful, if bittersweet conclusion: using Improv creates new experiences to share in the moment with your loved one. But memories of our history together will continue to fade. If I want to have a more relaxed and meaningful relationship with Mom, I must surrender the urge to "reason her back" into my world and our shared past.


After Dad assured Mom that the soap didn't belong in the refrigerator ("Think of Irish Spring, honey - you wouldn't store THAT in the refrigerator. This is like Irish Spring*."), Mom sat back down and looked at my artisan soap. Then she took a big whiff of the scent (lavender + spearmint) and smiled.

Mom has always loved lavender. So. There's a happy moment.

Treasure shared experiences while you can - they're often fleeting.

Happy Mother's Day to all the Mother and others, friends. If your Mom is still here with us, give her a big hug.

 - L.

(Have a loved one experiencing dementia? The clip, Rainy Days and Mondays, is worth the 20+ minute listen. If you check it out, tell me what you think, below.)

 *(NO NO NO - it's NOT like Irish Spring. But I understand)


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