Question: My mother moved in with us five months ago. My mother and I have never seen eye-to-eye on things, which creates a wall of defense for both of us. She has dementia and cannot remember the smallest of things, but does remember all of the family members. When she says something to me she says she's trying to be funny, but some of the things are very hurtful. I try to overlook them, but after a while I feel as if these are the things she has always thought about me in her subconscious mind, but had a filter and kept it in. Now she has no filter and just says what she wants. I love her very much, but this is difficult for her (because she does not even realize she is saying those things), for me and my husband. I feel broken in many ways right now.
Dr. Amy: I never cease to be amazed by the quiet heroism of family caregivers like you. Your mother is very fortunate to have such an incredibly loving daughter.
Your letter gives me the opportunity to underline the importance of being careful with humor. A sense of humor is a wonderful thing and it truly is a gift to be able to laugh when challenges come our way. But using humor to belittle someone is not funny. It's just plain hurtful.
Having said that, while I understand why you might think your mom has always had hurtful opinions about you, I’d like you to consider the possibility that it might not be true. Dementia is changing the way her mind works. It no longer functions the way it used to. Now, because of her condition, she is actually thinking differently. The hurtful things she says could just be passing thoughts that she never had before—today’s impressions that are the result of dementia.
The hard part is what to do with the negative energy, since your mom may not be able to understand that what she says is hurtful. First, it’s important to remind yourself that your mom is not the person she was in the past. Her brain does not have the same cognitive power and control. By not reacting to the insults, you demonstrate that you understand this. You also send a signal to your mother, if she is able to receive it. After a pause, redirect the conversation to a more pleasant topic.
If you feel you are unable to keep talking because you are too upset, walk away. Take a few minutes to take a few deep breaths and give yourself some positive self-talk so that you regain your balance. Do something to clear away the negative thoughts.
Lastly, it will help if you can talk about your experiences with others. How is your support network? Do you know others who are experiencing challenges with caregiving? Even if you do have close friends you can talk to about your situation, you might benefit from joining a support group.
I send you strength.
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