A couple of weeks ago, my mother’s first words of the day were, “Where’s Millie?” and I froze. Millie is my mother’s younger sister who died about 42 years ago. She didn’t remember that Millie had died of a brain tumor. I think she realized that forgetting this particular piece of information was a bit unusual for her, as she was rather quiet when I told her. For the next 20 minutes or so, until I left for work, I heard her quietly say several times that she couldn’t believe that she didn’t remember.
Memory is a strange thing, particularly for an older person. My mother has very specific memories from her childhood. Who lived next door to whom, a specific instance with a ring from the boy down the street and rollerskating to school are all alive and well in the recesses of her memory. Some of these stories she told me years ago, so I tend to believe them. Some other memories have changed a little – usually it’s apparent that the memory is real but the accompanying dialogue is a little dicey … similar in tone but slightly different very time I hear it. For example, she had three sons and wanted a daughter when she was pregnant with me – and she made this known to both my father and her doctor. However, sometimes she said X to the doctor and sometimes to Dad, and sometimes in the story, she didn’t say X at all and replaced it with Y and Z. I’ve heard the story enough to know that the gist of it is true even if the specifics are a little vague. It’s not a big deal either way, but is a red flag that other things may not be as they seem.
Another development is the dramatic shifting of some stories and the occasional additions to the repertoire. Sometimes it’s a matter of realizing that she is confusing two memories – she did this regarding two people who died and their causes of their deaths. What had happened was obvious once she mentioned the other person’s name. However, sometimes she relates “memories” that I have not heard before – these make me wonder. With all of the edits to her personal history that I know about, maybe these new stories are not true … maybe they did not really happen at all.
For the most part, what is really true and what is imagined or reoriented to fit a new reality is inconsequential. Does it matter what Mom said to Dad vs. to the doctor? No. Does it matter what disease someone had? No, unless we are writing to their family. Does it matter whether story X really happened? Maybe not, as long as no one else is hurt or drawn into something. The only times I correct my mother’s stories are when she is telling them to the doctor – at that point, errors could make a difference and it is important to be as accurate as possible.
The reason “Where’s Millie?” caught our attention is that this was different. It was not about remembering someone’s name or something the doctor said 50+ years ago. She did not remember that her sister had died 42 years ago … it wasn’t a detail. Also, she didn’t immediately realize her lapse with an “oh, that’s right”, which is what she usually does when I remind her of things. When an older person is losing their memory, every “new” element is cause for concern … is it getting worse … what will be next … can she be by herself during the day? In this case, it was apparent that while I was asking myself these questions, she was asking them of herself. Neither of us had an answer.
This must have been tough for both of you.
I’ve mentioned my dad, dead 5 years now, several times here. His brain was generally still sharp. In the last two years of his life i decided to create a book of all the stories he’d told me for the last 30 years (i am the family genealogist) and went over the stories with him before putting them into book form. He elaborated on some but one item particularly surprised me. It was about the part of Texas where he lived as a kid and how a famous playwright had created a trilogy of plays about the area. He’s never evinced a single interest in plays, so i was as surprised by his info as facts about the plays. I looked them up online & he was correct on every point.
So, when i wrote the book (really more a booklet) and shared with my siblings at Christmas they were charmed. My sister asked dad about the play and author. He claimed he’d had no idea where i got the material, as he had never heard of it. Weird! As noted, in all those years i had not heard of the plays, the playwright or even much about that part of Texas, yet that day he recalled it all.
There was also a lapse about a Civil War ancestor but i could correct that by seeking out the info. But years back he changed the names all around, leading me to much frustration…enough so that i stopped trying to locate that ancestor. Then, that!
Neat that you can roll with these surprises–pleasant or not. As you note, it’s really only important if it’s about health.
So interesting about the plays! It’s fascinating to see how these memory issues play out. Great that you could check it out and confirm it. I love the ancestry stuff – I would do more of it if I had time. In fact, before my mother moved down, I was starting to work on the family tree a bit more. Now, I would rather spend time with her in the evening and work on the blog or knitting after she goes to bed. I hope to get back to it soon, though.
Rolling with the various stories is about the only ways to realistically handle it, I think. It would completely demoralize her to be “corrected” all the time and with the repetition it would drive me crazy. The only thing that would be accomplished is that she would stop talking, which is not a good situation.
Susan – I am not commenting about “where is Millie”. Was checking your blog to see if you had posted anything as of late – didn’t find anything – so, I am thinking, perhaps this way you might see it. I am so sorry about the way I am about not writing (however, I am going to work on it). So – much has happened that I would like to talk w/Maureen about. One is Joanne dying – I was not expecting it as I had been taking her to church right along. I will miss her and I have been missing Maureen as well. I do wonder how she is doing now. I also wanted to tell her that my daughter fm Fla. has a camp right around the corner where Dolly lived. When Dolly left there, they gave her Dolly’s living room furniture – it is so very nice. I see Jim at church – but, not usually able to talk w/him – am going to try and catch him.
I hope Maureen is doing well – tell her I love her and miss her – but, I do keep her in my prayers.
Hope you see this – only way I have to communicate right now. Mary J.