Allowing My Mom to Retrieve Her Memories
I offer support as her mind grapples, but I don’t rescue her.
My mother lives in a lovely senior living community.
I live 500 miles away but talk with her by phone three or four times per week.
I talked to my Mom by phone on May 5, 2022, and she told me she had gone on a bus trip.
Mom: “We drove all around and I couldn’t remember where we lived”
Me: “We lived farther away than where your bus trip probably went. We lived in Kingsville.” That didn’t land.
Me: “I’m going to give you a few hints. Let me think of something that you might remember.”
I decided to use visuals — something she could picture in her mind that might associate with where we lived.
Mom: “The dog!”
Me: “Yes our dog. For some reason when I pictured where we lived she popped into my mind. Remember all the puppies she had?” (referring to our St. Bernard who had 12 puppies)
Mom: “Oh, yeah.”
Me: “Can you picture the pen in the backyard with all the puppies? Can picture our yard in your mind?”
Mom: “Yes, I can.”
Me: “M-O-H-R road.”
Mom: “Mohr Road.”
I was intrigued that she had no trouble when I spelled the name of the road — M-O-H-R not only didn’t confuse her but she had no trouble knowing and saying what it spelled. It seemed that whatever part of the brain is connected to spelling, hers was still fully intact.
Me: “Do you remember what else was in our backyard? There were a few significant things.”
Mom: “No I don’t remember.”
Me: “One of them was off the ground.”
Mom: “Oh, the treehouse.”
Me: “Yes! Wow, my hint on that one was rather vague but it pulled in your memory immediately. All those memories are still there, Mom, but I bet you haven’t thought about our backyard or the treehouse in a long time.”
Mom: “No, I haven’t thought about that in a very long time.”
Me: “That’s probably why you couldn’t remember so easily. Maybe those memories were quite far in the back of your mind and that made them harder to retrieve?”
I then talked about a few other things related to that time. Like how, even though my father built the treehouse for my brother, he rarely used it. It was me and my friends who played in it. We would camp out in it.
When I talk to my mother and she can’t remember something I don’t complete the sentence for her. I don’t change the subject so that she doesn’t feel embarrassed. I don’t say “Never mind it doesn’t matter” and I don’t simplify the conversation.
I made the decision to not go down that well-worn path.
When I first noticed my mother having trouble remembering the names of things or people, I wanted to try a creative approach that would facilitate but not caretake.
On the phone one day, we were talking about how my brother’s family recently got a new puppy. I think she even brought it up which impressed me. I told her that I had seen a photo of the puppy on my niece’s Instagram.
Then Mom said “They have never had a dog,” and something about how her grandchildren wanted one.
I spontaneously said “Yes they did. They had a dog.”
She said she didn’t remember a dog. I had to think on my feet in that moment and quickly decide what to do. I knew she had spent a lot of time with their last dog and was fond of her. I knew the memory was there, so I gave her a few hints.
I mentioned a few small details about what else was going on during that time period. I filled in small pieces of the scene. I was curious to see if she could retrieve the memory on her own with a few memory jogs (like most of us do).
It worked. She eventually remembered.
The same thing happened when she was trying to explain something to me, but couldn’t find the words. I couldn’t fill in the blanks even if I wanted to because she was trying to remember how to describe a concept, so it was more than just one word or one memory.
I waited. She kept trying. I had no idea what words she was looking for. I could have tried to guess but I waited. I had a few ideas but held my tongue and as it turns out I wasn’t even close.
I let her stay with the process of trying to come up with the words. She fumbled a bit and was clearly frustrated but she wasn’t mortified so it didn't feel unkind to sit with her while she grappled with her brain. I told her there was no rush. I said “Give it a minute. I think it will come to you.”
It was clear that she knew in her mind what she wanted to say but just couldn’t think of the right word or phrase. We all do that. We do it more as we age, but it’s a common struggle for almost all of us now and then.
I stayed in a positive frame of mind and waited patiently. I told her to take her time and encouraged her to keep trying to find the words she was looking for.
I didn’t jump in to rescue her to protect her from frustration. I also didn’t do anything to relieve my discomfort — my sadness about her struggle with a mind that was sometimes failing her.
She repeated the first part of what she was trying to describe and she eventually found all the words she was looking for and spoke quite eloquently. It surprised me when she found all the words and it surprised her as well.
That experience was informative — I found out that she was able to do it if she kept trying. I had a vision of a synapse in her brain that had started to shrivel up and blocked her ability to find the words for that specific concept. But as she worked on it, she sent energy to that one little synapse…and because she didn’t panic, that synapse got an electrical current kickstart and made the connection once again between the receptor sites.
She worked her brain and she didn’t give up. She had the tenacity and courage to stay with it. I simply tried to be patient and soothing enough so that she would not give up or feel shame.
Many folks in their elder years try to hide the limitations that begin to descend upon them. I could be wrong but I believe that when elders pretend that they aren’t having difficulty and feel too embarrassed to ask for assistance, the result might be faster deterioration.
Something I do now is to think of topics in advance that I can talk with my Mom about. I don’t simplify the conversation because she has memory problems. This may sound counter-intuitive or that I’m not being compassionate. But if I don't ask more of her — if I don’t expect more of her, she might be inclined to take the easy route. The problem with the easy route is that it could hasten the loss of her memory.
I believe that I can help my mother most if I help her exercise her mind.
Instead of having simpler conversations, I engage my mother in complex conversations — sometimes about current events and other times about things in the past.
When Madeleine Albright passed away I was at first hesitant to mention it to Mom because it was about someone dying and that’s not a subject I usually want to bring up with my 93-year-old mother.
But when I found out that Albright was Czech I knew that would be of interest to Mom since her maternal grandparents came to America from Czechoslovakia “on the pickle boat” when they were a young couple.
I asked Mom: “Did you know that Madeleine Albright was a Czechoslovakian refugee?” She said she didn’t know that, but I could tell it piqued her interest. I shared more information, reminding Mom that Albright was the first female Secretary of State. I shared a few other interesting tidbits that I had recently learned about Albright to stimulate Mom’s thinking.
When we have a conversation about almost anything, there are parts of the past that Mom doesn’t remember, but I keep talking on the subject and then let her talk. I keep the conversation going on that subject but I don’t fill in the blanks for her.
As we continue to talk I can almost hear the puzzle pieces of her memory falling into place creating a more complete picture. In my mind I can see a specific scene from the past, making its way to the forefront of her memory.
It not only seems to be a good mental exercise for her, but when she retrieves a memory on her own, she feels a great sense of accomplishment. It seems to give her an instant energy boost. That boost might be small and fleeting, but for those few minutes, she feels uplifted and more confident.
I call my Mom quite often.
For a while, whenever we talked she’d ask, “Are you still a Quaker?”
That question was in the front of her mind for many months. I presume this was because a few years ago I started attending a Quaker meeting. I got involved with the community and established their online presence with a new website and content for their social media pages.
At that time I talked to Mom a lot about my involvement with the Quaker meeting and the projects I was working on that were supported by the larger New England region Quakers.
I assume that because that topic was repeated often, it became embedded in my mother’s mind. Every time she picked up the phone and it was me, the receptor sites in her mind sparked with “Quaker.” For that period of time, the first thing she would ask me is “Are you still a Quaker?”
One day she said to me, “I’m going to ask you the question that I always ask you — are you still a Quaker?”
I chuckled and was impressed that she remembered the fact that she asks me that whenever I call. It’s become a bit of a joke but every time she asks the question, she deepens the groove of that neural pathway in her mind.
Neuroscience is a fascinating field that studies the relationship between the mind and the brain. Some of us use those two terms interchangeably but while they are in a close and dependent relationship, the two are quite different.
Neuroscientist Caroline Leaf explains the difference in her article “How Are The Mind & The Brain Different?”
How Are The Mind & The Brain Different? A Neuroscientist Explains
For many people, the mind and brain are interchangeable. They use one word or the other to talk about the same thing…
“The mind uses the brain, and the brain responds to the mind. The mind also changes the brain. The mind is energy, and it generates energy through thinking, feeling, and choosing.
When we generate this mind energy…we build thoughts, which are physical structures in our brain made of proteins.”
Dr. Leaf describes what I knew a bit about from reading articles on neuroscience and neuroplasticity. I knew that neural pathways could be built and strengthened in the brain. I also knew that neural pathways could shink and wither away and that we could work on both — strengthening the memories of things we wanted to remember and weakening those we no longer wanted in our minds.
I hope that the way I’ve been interacting with my mother helps her strengthen her memories. It might be that exercising her mind in those ways only strengthens her neural pathways for a short time. Perhaps only for the duration of our conversation. But I believe her small successes have a positive impact even if her sense of achievement only lasts for a moment.
She had not asked in a while but on a recent call, my Mom started to ask her question. “Are you still a…” then she paused, unable to access the word.
I told her I was going to wait until she thought of it. We chatted about other things and a few minutes later I asked her, “Am I still a…?”
She still couldn’t remember it.
I waited a few seconds then said, “It starts with a Q.”
She instantly exclaimed “Quaker!”
Good work Mom!