An elderly parent — not just a job, but an adventure

My poor mother got hospital delirium last night.  The nurses called me at 5 a.m. in the hopes that hearing my voice would help orient her.  It didn’t.  “You’re not my daughter.  I don’t know who you are, but my daughter wouldn’t have put me in this awful place.”  Mom quizzed me about her mother’s maiden name, our old dog, the place where we lived, but nothing satisfied her.  How could it?  She wasn’t in her right mind.

Because I was wide awake by this time, I got into the car and headed over to the hospital — only to learn that my “orienting” services were no longer needed.  Mom had gotten so violent (which, if you knew my mother in her right mind, is laughable), that they had to chemically sedate her.  It was the right call, I think, although the sedative itself messes with people’s heads.

Mom’s delirium was interesting, in a bizarre way, because it was an extension of her waking personality:  paranoid and angry.  Except this was paranoid and angry on steroids, then squared, then squared again.

I hope that Mom can walk back from this one.  The article says that delirium ebbs and flows, but that it doesn’t bode well over the long-term.  I’m actually not perturbed by the grim long-term health prognosis.  Her problems are such that I haven’t been optimistic about a distant future for a while now.

I’m sad about all this, but neither despairing nor, I hope, maudlin.  As I explained to the kids, life is a one way journey, and something’s going to end it.  Tragedy is when a parent dies young or when a child predeceases a parent.  “Life” is one someone lives much longer than her three score and ten, and then, finally, the system breaks down.

As I said in my earlier post on the subject, what makes me sad is that this has been such an incredibly painful and unhappy journey for my mother.  I had hoped that a long, most healthy life; a loving family; and a safe, caring environment would spell peace in old age.  But character is destiny.  The low-level anger and paranoia that served her well by fueling her and protecting her as she navigated the dangerous world of the 30s and 40s, not to mention immigrating to a new country in the 1950s, have now turned against her, denying her repose.  And that fact is much more disheartening to me than her eventual and inevitable death which will, at last, bring eternal peace.

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  • powerlifter

    I was a nurse in intensive care and subacute units for 13 years and have also been involved with ailing, elderly family members.  I don’t think medical personnel emphasize enough how common it is for the elderly to become extremely confused in the hospital setting.  If the underlying medical issue improves and they go back to their previous living situation, the majority go back to their baseline. I recently lost my father after a long struggle with Parkinsons.  It is very difficult and depressing to watch a formerly-strong parent deteriorate.  It sounds like you are doing everything you can to help.  When she passes that will be a comfort to you and the grief may not be as severe as you might think because you have been forced to experience a sort of slow grief on a daily basis.  Please accept my sympathy and prayers.   

  • Leah

    You are very wise in your assessment of your mother. She may not find peace, but I hope that you do and that your realize that you have been a very good daughter to her. That should give you comfort and peace.

  • Bookworm

    Thank you, powerlifter.  As it happens, my mother is following a trajectory similar to my father’s.  By the time my father’s body died, the man who was “My Dad” had already been gone for almost a decade.  I simply didn’t recognize in the elderly, ailing cancer victim the same person who had raised me.  The situation is even stronger in my mother, as she is much older and has, as she aged, traveled even further from the person she once was.  We were sorting through old photographs the other day in order to digitize them, and I simply couldn’t relate the vibrate, laughing mother in the photos to the angry old lady in the hospital.

    I’m taking very good care of the angry old lady in the hospital, because I owe a debt to the vibrant laughing woman who raised me.  If I sound like a slightly distant sociopath, I’m not.  As you realized, powerlifter, I already have said good-bye to my “real” mother.

    Speaking of which, I’m off to the hospital now.  She called me to tell me that she’s being kept in a dark basement with strange people doing bizarre experiments to her.  So next time you hear someone talk about being kidnapped by aliens, check if they weren’t actually on the third floor of a nice suburban hospital, with a view of the mountains, and very attentive nurses trying their best.


  • Ellen

    My mother had the same thing in the hospital.  The nurses called in sundown syndrome.  She’s doing it again at the nursing home, and that’s part of the reason she is on medication for depression.  It’s heartbreaking.  I’ve beaten myself up over it, but I realize that I wasn’t the one who let my at first, minor problems become major ones.  I try to be there for her, and I know she is getting very good care.

  • Old Soldier

    Been there; done that with three parents.  Our prayers are with you, if you don’t mind a wild-eyed right-wing fundamentalist doing so.
    One thing that helped me and my wife deal with this:  listen like your mother is a two year old.  The behavior is quite similar and the logic just about that incomprehensible.  If you’ve had children, you know the drill:  “I hate you!”  Reply with “and I love you.”  When you were two, her love was unconditional.  You now have the chance to return the blessing of the great love.

  • Tonestaple

    Book, back when I seemed to have a lot more free time, I used to read lots of medical blogs.  One thing the ER docs mentioned more than once was, delerium in the elderly, especially those who lived in a nursing home, was a bladder infection until that cause was ruled out.  Apparently there’s a causal link between the two so you might want to make sure they check her for an infection if it happens again.
    I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on blogs, but you reminded me of this.
    Also, would you please adopt me?  I love the way you explain stuff to your kids.