5 Valuable Lessons My Mother's Dementia Has Taught My Son

by Katarina Bohn
photobac / iStock

I have a 6-year-old son. I also have a 71-year-old daughter who happens to be my mother. I refer to her as my daughter because it’s an accurate description. My mother was diagnosed with dementia a little over two years ago. I bathe her, clothe her, feed her, and care for her the same way one would care for a child. We all live together in the same house along with my husband and a very energetic dog.

I live in constant fear: I fear the day my mom loses her mind completely. I fear my husband will wake up one day and join the circus, finally realizing that a circus would bring less drama than our day-to-day life. The one fear that exceeds all others, however, is the fear that my son will become emotionally scarred by the experience of watching me take care of his grandmother (who was once an energetic lady that played catch with him tirelessly) like she’s a child younger than himself.

I worry about my son constantly because I would like for his life to be all unicorns and rainbows for as long as possible. I’m sad that he has a front-row seat to the horrors of dementia day after day. However, I’m becoming more and more conscious of the daily lessons he is learning from my mother. He’s learning things at the age of 6 that many adults have never learned, and quite possibly should have. There are five lessons in particular I feel my mother teaches my son every day.

1. Patience.

Have you ever met a 6-year-old? Not the most patient of creatures, are they? My son is no exception. He is an only child so he really never had to wait for anything. My husband and I were free to lavish attention on him constantly since we never had to divide our time between children. Now that the dementia has taken over my mother’s brain, my son’s needs sometimes have to be pushed aside. My mother gets first dibs on the bathroom so she doesn’t have an accident. My mother gets served meals first so she has plenty of time to eat. I sometimes have to tend to my mother first, making sure she’s comfortable and not anxious before I can begin playing with my child. Does my son like waiting his turn? No, not always, but patience is one of life’s necessities, and I’m glad he’s learning that lesson at a young age.

2. Kindness

My mother has mood swings and behavioral changes every time her medication is altered. On school days, I wake my mother a full hour before I wake my son so I can focus on each of them individually. After a recent medication dose increase, one morning my mother was extremely lethargic, unsteady on her feet, and much more confused than usual. As I walked her to and from the bathroom, terrified she would fall, my son decided to follow behind us pushing a chair so that if my mother fell backwards, she would fall into the chair. I did not tell my child to do this; it was completely his idea. My heart broke for the fact that my son even had to think of such an action. Yet I was also proud that my tiny little boy, the same kid that sometimes needs his snack right now, was putting his grandmother first in such a kind-hearted way.

3. Respecting One’s Elders

One day, each and every one of us will be old. I don’t know about you, but I sure hope when my time comes the younger generation will treat me with dignity and respect. My son learns this lesson daily as he clears plates for my mother, opens doors for her, and holds her hand to keep her steady. Our elders are a treasure and should be treated as such.

4. Acceptance

My mother is ill. She is not the same woman she was a couple of years ago. But she is still my mother. She is still my son’s grandmother. Accepting my mother’s illness and this new version of the woman I’ve known forever was an extremely difficult lesson for me to learn, much less my child. I’m hopeful that my son will continue to accept my mother as this disease progresses.

5. Strength

Dementia is not only an individual disease. Dementia affects an entire family. Dementia is evil. I look at my child and want to shield him and protect him from this evil. Yet I look at my child and see his strength. He can witness my mother’s anxiety and still build an entire city out of Legos. He can see my mother’s confusion and kick a soccer ball directly into a goal. My boy is strong, and I gain my own strength from his.

I cannot cure my mother of this horrid illness. I cannot cover my son’s eyes or keep him hidden in his room. So I comfort myself knowing that every day is a learning experience designed to build his already exceptional character. I could not be more proud.