In January of 2019, I begrudgingly left downtown Greenville and moved in with my mother at her home near Waynesville, North Carolina. If given a choice, I would have moved into a maximum-security prison, but I had no choice. My mom’s dementia, which she had been diagnosed with several years earlier, had reached the point it was no longer safe for her to live alone. My mom had gone from forgetting where she’d left her keys to forgetting what keys are.
When I first moved in, we came to an agreement. I would stay through October, so she could enjoy autumn in the mountains, and then in November she would move into an assisted living facility in Greenville. As far as caretaker jobs go, it was fairly effortless. My mom didn’t require help bathing or dressing, she just needed someone to cook her meals, remind her to take her medicine, and prevent her from feeding the dog twelve times a day. She was grateful I was there and continually thanked me for my help. But when November finally rolled around, and I broached the subject of her moving into the facility, she immediately switched from Jekyll to Hyde. “Those places are for old people,” my eighty-one-year-old mom yelled. “So you can forget sending me to a place like that.”
“Those places are for old people,” my eighty-one-year-old mom yelled. “So you can forget sending me to a place like that.”
Over the next few months, my mom’s condition worsened. It’s disconcerting to watch someone slowly lose their mind, while their body remains healthy and agile. “Did I know you when you were a baby?” my mom asked me one afternoon as she shoved plastic flowers into pots of moldy soil. A few days later, I went to the end of the driveway to get the mail, and when I returned five minutes later she threw out her arms: “I didn’t know you were coming to visit today!” I hugged her and whispered, “It’s going to be okay.” She looked at me, perplexed, “Everything is okay.”
In the spring of 2020, the pandemic hit, and moving into a facility was the last thing I wanted for my mom. Somehow we survived the next year together, but the wires in her brain continued to fray. “Do you rent this house?” she would ask, looking around the home she’d owned for thirty-five years. One morning I found her sitting on the couch, her face covered in tears. “I don’t know where I am,” she said. It was the first instance of paranoia, but as the months passed it became more and more pronounced. My mom went from living in baffled bliss to living in fear. Her home was no longer a safe place, and I was becoming a stranger.
In March of this year, my mom was no longer suitable for assisted living; she needed a memory care facility. So when a space opened up at the Woodlands at Furman, I reserved it and didn’t tell her. I had to trick her to get her there—the gutless action of a spineless man. But I convinced myself it was an act of compassion. When I called her a couple of weeks later, she demanded I come pick her up, then slammed down the phone when I refused.
But last week I went for a visit, and when I walked in I found my mom learning to salsa dance, a guy old enough to have voted for Truman hanging on her arm. My mom took me to her room, which I’d furnished with items from her house in the mountains—her bed, her dresser, her décor—a small, secure replica of her home. “I love it here,” my mom said. “If they try to make me leave, I’m going to pretend I’m really sick and then they’ll have to let me stay.” The cruel irony of dementia is you forget you have it. Or maybe that’s its one blessing.