by Jerry Waxler
According to caregiver.org 50 million people in North America are informally caring for the elderly while 8.9 million of those caregivers face the added burden of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Carol O’Dell, author of the memoir “Mothering Mother” was one of those people. Not only was her mother no longer able to care for herself. She had literally lost her mind.
There is nothing pretty about the helplessness of aging, but unless our parents and everyone we love die fast and young, at some point we can no longer push aside the recognition that aging happens. One way to prepare for that realization is by learning about the experiences of those who have gone before us. Through such lessons as offered by the memoir “Mothering Mother,” we gradually do the emotional and spiritual work to accept the variety of stages of our lifetime journey.
O’Dell built a room onto her house and invited her mother to live with her family. By becoming her mother’s primary caregiver, O’Dell immersed herself more deeply into caregiving than she anticipated. She had to set herself aside, the way a mother sets herself aside to care for a newborn. But this was no cuddly infant. This was her mother, lost in forgetting so profound, she not only forgot the past. She forgot how to be human. It’s like a horror movie in which some evil force has stolen the person’s true self, leaving behind the shell.
O’Dell didn’t have the choice to send her mother to a care facility. For one thing, she and her husband were concerned that they could not financially afford to get adequate care for her mother. For another thing, O’Dell had promised her mother she would care for her at home.
There were times the strain was so severe she felt she was losing her own mind. Her experience was consuming, draining, demoralizing, overwhelming, even traumatic. Her memoir gives me a powerful glimpse into her emotionally complex situation. And she does it without overwhelming me. I found myself wanting to know more and actually raced along to see what would happen next.
One of the reasons I wanted to know more about her experience was to try to understand how she coped. If she could cope with this situation then there is hope for humanity. And in fact, she did exactly that. She cared for her aging, failing mother to the best of her ability and in the process earned my respect. Her ordinary life gave her the material to inform millions of people what that experience was like. While O’Dell’s experience seems overwhelming, by sharing it with us, she also shares some of the strength and sanity she gained by immersing herself so deeply into the final throes of her mother’s life.
Writing a memoir is exactly the opposite of the mental deterioration of dementia. By writing a story about taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s, O’Dell was exercising that part of her brain, the prefrontal cortex, that distinguishes humans from the other creatures on the planet. The very act of writing helps the writer cope, and once the story is written, it can be reread, reorganized, and shared. This organizational ability of the brain is the basis for much of what we consider sane and sacred about being human. While Carol O’Dell can’t erase her mother’s suffering or her own, she can write about it, choosing her words and phrases and images. These simple tools let her organize events into a story. And through this process she can reclaim some of the humanity that was lost and offer it to us as a gift.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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