The Cow is Alive

I was talking with my friend Nancy about my mom.

“She asked me again about her brothers and sisters,” I said. “I told her they all died. That made her cry.”

“Maybe you should just tell her they’re fine, but they’re unable to visit. They send their love.”

As you may have guessed from previous posts, I’ve so far been resistant to taking this approach. Maybe I wanted to believe my mom’s disease wasn’t advanced enough to warrant it. Or maybe I thought our relationship was so special that I’d be able to tell her the painful truth without upsetting her, as if it wouldn’t hurt so much coming from me.

But I realize Nancy is right. As she said, there’s no reason for my mom to be traumatized again and again. It’s not like she can process the grief and move on; it’s brand new every time.

To cement her message, Nancy reminded me of a story I had told her about another friend who took the same gentle approach with her father that Nancy was suggesting I take with my mom.

That friend is Jennie, whose father had Alzheimer’s. Though he lived in New York (the city where Jennie lives), he would often travel to California to stay with her sister Shirley. Jennie and Shirley shared responsibility for his care.

One day while their father was in California, Shirley called Jennie. She said he was very worried about his cow, an animal he’d cared for decades before when he was a young child in Puerto Rico.

“What are we going to do about the damn cow?” Shirley asked.

After thinking about it and doing some research, Jennie found a solution.

“Put him on the phone,” Jennie told Shirley when they next spoke. Then she started talking to her father.

“Papi, I know you’re worried about the cow,” she said. “I want you to know the cow is okay.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Listen.”

At that moment, she put the telephone mike next to her computer speakers and hit a button. The most beautiful sound, to her father, issued forth from the speakers.

“Moo! Moo!”

Jennie had found a whole collection of farm animal sounds online, and she played him the crucial one.

“I’m so glad my cow is okay,” he said. “I feel so much better. Thank you.”

Yes, thank you, Jennie. And thank you, Nancy. It’s good to have friends. (And electronic animal sounds!)

About daughter3

My mom has Alzheimer's disease. She's 91 and lives in a nursing home. She has three daughters. I'm her youngest.
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12 Responses to The Cow is Alive

  1. Amelia says:

    These little lies are acts of kindness. If your mom asks to call or visit one of her siblings, you could postpone the event till later, or offer to write a letter together, and she’ll probably forget. That’s the blessing of dementia. I heard of one man who would happily watch the same Harry Potter movie again and again.

    • daughter3 says:

      Yes, I agree Amelia. I could postpone or redirect, and she will forget about it until the next time. Or I could say, “Let’s call them now, mom.” I know my mom. She never really wants to call anyone. She always says, “Oh, no. Let’s do it later.”

  2. Nancy says:

    Good move Beth..hope you are feeling OK

  3. Lynn says:

    I similarly resisted giving into my mother’s flawed memories, but have learned that it’s much easier to acquiesce, and with much happier results. My difficulty comes when my mother is talking to me, believing I’m someone else, and I don’t know who I’m supposed to be. This past week she started speaking to me in Yiddish – when I told her I didn’t understand Yiddish she was puzzled, after all, “my parents” only speak Yiddish, how could I not understand? I still don’t know who I was supposed to be at that moment, but did my best to side-step the issue and move on. It’s true that as long as I answer her questions, the substance of what I say is irrelevant as long as it’s positive.
    As for a failing memory, that too can have a happy secondary effect – as in the telling of jokes. We’ve gotten to the point now where we can even joke about what a good audience she is, since I have a small repertory of jokes and she never remembers the punchline. One in particular – when I ask her if she’s comfortable, the joke is that she’s supposed to reply “I make a living”. We’ve gotten to the point now that when I ask her, after adjusting her blanket or her position in her chair “Are you comfortable?” – she looks at me, knowing that there’s a ‘funny’ answer to that question, but she’s yet to quite remember.

    • daughter3 says:

      Thanks so much for sharing, Lynn. It must be very difficult to have your mom think you’re someone else. It really is hard to know what to do about it. I had that problem a couple of times when my mom thought I was her brother Bud. I have a feeling it will happen many more times. I like your joke, by the way!

  4. Belle says:

    This is so moo-ving!!!! I love it!! good decision I agree that it’s an act of kindness.

  5. Very touching. My Nana had Alzheimer’s and sometimes she thought I was her cousin Minnie and spoke Italian to me and other times she knew who I was because she would tell me to cut my hair like she had my whole life. Sometimes she thought my grandfather who died 25 years earlier was alive “Lets go upstairs and put some coffee on, Frank will be home from work soon,” she’d say. I found it best to not argue with her, if Gramps was alive, he was alive. If I was Minnie, I was Minnie even though I know very few Italian words. I think it was easier for me to meet her where she was in that moment, because I was one generation removed from her. My mother was calm as well but my mom’s sisters had a hard time when Nana would confuse them for someone else. They would tell her she was wrong and get her upset. Never saw the point in that. Wish you well on this journey with your mom.

  6. maryangelis says:

    Oh goodness, what a vast journey… my word.
    A book that really helped me was “Old Age in a New Age: The Promise of Transformative Nursing Homes” by Beth Baker, about staff in 5 facilities who do their eldercare work with tremendous grace and poise and dignity and even joy. Another was the mother-daughter documentary “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter,” and the gentleness and sensitivity there. Here’s a clip:

    So much respect to you; my heart goes out to both of you on the adventure…

    • daughter3 says:

      Thanks so much for the resources. I remember hearing about “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter,” but not sure I saw it. I’ll check it out now.

      • maryangelis says:

        Why hello Beth! For a Sunday afternoon at the library, that DVD seemed a very unlikely entertainment prospect. But I brought it home, and was glad of it. What struck me was the gentleness and acceptance and humor, and how much it showed about the character of the two women on this journey when they have to keep jettisoning their baggage… Anyway, maybe you will like it? Hoping os. Thank you for your nice comment! M

  7. Melanie says:

    Hi! I think it’s very admirable that you’re taking care of your mother in her old age. There are many people who forget about their parents and grandparents when they need them most, especially when they have a disorder. It’s frustrating and I have a lot of respect for you!

    I’m a Psychology major at LSU, so I find this blog particularly interesting. I took a Cognitive Psychology class a couple of semesters ago and we studied memory. One of the things I recall from the class is of a patient who had lost part of his short-term memory after an accident. He could not make new memories. After the accident, his father passed away and everyday, he would have to be told that his father passed. Everyday it was hard on him and he was clearly upset, but more times he went through this, somehow it became easier for him to get through the pain. The idea is that even though he could not explicitly remember the fact that his father had passed with each new day, his brain somehow unconsciously knew (implicitly) remembered this information. And it became easier for him to swallow the bitter pill each time he was told.

    I haven’t yet studied things like Alzheimer’s in much detail, but I imagine there are some similarities between these two stories. I just thought you might find this interesting.

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