Mothers’ Day in Dementialand (aka What You Do Every Day Matters More Than What You Do Once in a While)

Last week I ran into an acquaintance, Cindy, at the rec center where I teach fitness classes. Cindy is recently retired and in her 60’s. In the summer, she’s an avid outdoor cyclist. When it’s cold or rainy, she comes inside the gym to ride a spin bike.

Her mom, Edna, is in the end stage of Alzheimer’s and resides in a local nursing home. Since her retirement, Cindy typically stops in at the nursing home at least once a day. When the weather allows, she rides her bike.

When I see Cindy, I usually ask how Edna is doing. I feel like Cindy is grateful for the question but struggles to answer it. She feels like Edna is getting good care but at this point doesn’t have much of a quality of life.

“Mom had several good years after her diagnosis,” Cindy has said in the past. “But those good years are over.”

Now Edna stays in bed most of the day. Sometimes the staff puts her in a wheelchair, but she slumps over. She doesn’t speak. She hasn’t recognized anyone for a while now. It’s a struggle to get her to eat. She’s incontinent. She has what Cindy refers to as “glaze eyes.” It’s like she’s looking through people rather than at them. Her immune system doesn’t function well (yes, this is a symptom of end stage Alzheimer’s) so she’s constantly battling urinary tract infections and infected pressure sores.

When I saw Cindy last week at the rec center, she blurted out, “I think I’m a bad person. I’m not going to visit Mom on Mothers’ Day.”

Cindy told me that her own daughter and granddaughters live about four hours away. She’d be headed to visit them on Mothers’ Day, and there just wouldn’t be time to visit Edna.

Cindy had mentioned to a few people that she wouldn’t be going to see her mother at the nursing home on Mothers’ Day. They asked if Edna would have other visitors. Nope. She would have no visitors. Cindy felt like these people responded as if she was a horrible monster.

“So I’m leaving my poor mom alone at the nursing home on Mothers’ Day,” she said as her eyes welled up with tears.

It didn’t matter that Edna would not know it was Mothers’ Day or even that she was a mother. It didn’t matter that Edna wouldn’t acknowledge Cindy when she showed up or that Edna wasn’t capable of having a conversation. It didn’t matter than Edna might even be asleep for the entire time her daughter was there.

Not visiting your mother at the nursing home on Mothers’ Day still makes you feel like a loser.

And Cindy…is anything but a loser as a daughter. She invited Edna to move in with her and her own husband after diagnosis. When Edna’s care become too much for them, she researched nursing homes and found the absolute best option for care. It was a rare day when she didn’t stop by at least once, even after her mother stopped recognizing her. She made a special effort to thank the staff when they went out of their way to care for Edna. She even took her mom’s laundry home once a week and did it herself.

As Cindy was telling me about how she made the difficult decision to leave town to see her daughter and granddaughter for Mothers’ Day, my mind wandered to the people I’ve met who do visit their moms with dementia at the nursing home on Mothers’ Day–but rarely on other days. They go on Mothers’ Day because it’s Mothers’ Day and that’s what you do. Yet Mothers’ Day is only one day. Where are they the rest of the time?

I can’t be a jerk to my mom 364 days a year and make up for it by taking her out for an expensive Mothers’ Day brunch and buying her flowers. It doesn’t work that way for any of us, whether our mothers are well or sick.

I’m not saying Mothers’ Day isn’t important. I am saying that what you do most days is more important than what you do one day, even if that day has a special label.

One of my favorite authors is Gretchen Rubin, who wrote The Happiness Project, a book that changed the way I look at habits and happiness. A quote from her book that stuck with me is: What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.

It’s a pretty simple concept, but it’s helped me to change my life in subtle but meaningful ways. I have to create a daily life that reflects my goals and values. For instance, I have to be kind to the people I come in contact with each day to be a kind person. I can’t just go on a mission trip to a third world country once a year and call it good. My priorities have to be shown in my actions each day, not just once in a while, or they really aren’t my priorities.

I think about this in terms of marriage. If you’re not nice to your spouse every day, you can’t save your marriage by going on a romantic trip once in a while.

I think about it in terms of health and fitness. It’s better to consistently incorporate more walking into your daily life than go for an occasional run.

Your daily routine matters. Your life is made up of your daily routines. Cindy’s routine tells me that her mother is a priority to her…that she’s a caring person…that she’s doing the best she can.

I fumbled to explain my thinking to Cindy.

Finally, I asked her what advice she would give her daughter if she were in a similar situation on Mothers’ Day.

“Oh, I’d be angry if my daughter chose sitting in a boring nursing home on Mothers’ Day when she could be playing with her beautiful granddaughters,” she said.

As we parted ways, I said awkwardly, “Have a happy Mothers’ Day. You’re not a bad person!” (The term awkward is an understatement in this case.)

I have no doubt that Cindy was at the nursing home Saturday. I have no doubt she will be there today.

I hope she has found peace with not being there yesterday.



8 thoughts on “Mothers’ Day in Dementialand (aka What You Do Every Day Matters More Than What You Do Once in a While)

  1. Yep. Somebody asked me what I was doing with my mom for Mother’s Day, and I said “In my life, every day is Mother’s day.” My mom is not in the end stages, but even so, she didn’t need anything extra from me on Sunday. It’s the little things we do throughout the year that count.


  2. There should be a National Caregivers Day. I really feel for Cindy, love your way of writing this–so empathetic. There is only so much one can do. N.


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