Alzheimer's Disease Creates the Opportunity for Mutual Mothering

Senior woman with her hands on her head looking down sitting in a park bench with her daughter consoling her
Senior woman with her hands on her head looking down sitting in a park bench with her daughter consoling her

For decades prior to my mother's diagnosis of Alzheimer's in 2001, we had suffered a strained relationship born from her alcoholism. When I learned she had Alzheimer's, my hope for reconciliation and forgiveness drained away - along with her cognitive abilities.

But the world of Alzheimer's teems with surprises! As Mom's disease progressed, the ways I had disappointed her disappeared from her consciousness, and our struggles over my healthy life choices that differed from hers effortlessly ended. In her "now," I was her kind, loving companion. My faithful presence was all that mattered to her; and for the first time in my life, I felt whole-heartedly accepted by my mom - just exactly as I am. The wounds from the past began to heal in the arms of a mother who loved me in the present.

For our relationship to truly heal, my acceptance of Mom was also essential. Having learned about the process of decline determined by Alzheimer's, I acknowledged her limitations. I let go of expecting her to be the mother I had always wanted, and embraced the mother she now was. After doing this, I noticed that she had, in many ways, become the mother I needed.

Because I didn't expect, demand, or want Mom to be anyone other than who she was at each moment, she became the one person who could never let me down. I gratefully received whatever she offered, not asking for more. From this perspective, I realized just how much Mom was still able to give - including important things a daughter needs from her mother. For example, I trusted that she would be available to me (she was living in a secure memory care unit) whenever I was sad or stressed and needed a hug - from my mom. She was always happy to see me. Always. And she let me know that I was appreciated - through looks, smiles, touches, and sounds.

Perhaps Mom lacked the ability to intentionally mother me in these ways, but I received the experience of being mothered none-the-less. Sometimes I actually sat on her lap ~ like her little girl. Although I'm petite, and Mom was still quite robust at the time, I kept one foot on the floor, holding most of my weight off of her. I also used this foot to slowly rock her wheelchair. As Mom held me - tightly - my head rested on her shoulder and I imitated the voice of her baby doll, softly saying, "Mama, Mama." I believed these words brought her comfort. I also believed that if Mom could speak, she would be saying, "Mama, Mama" to me...because I also mothered her. I brushed her hair, gave her manicures, bought her clothes I knew she would like, sang to her, played games with her, read to her, danced with her, blew soap bubbles, held her hand as we walked through the care center, flossed and brushed her teeth, massaged her feet, fed her when she could no longer feed herself, protected her in every way possible, and hugged her at every opportunity. All done with gentleness, compassion, and reverence for the complete trust of me that was reflected in her eyes. I'm not sure which one of us was healed more by what felt like an experience of "mutual mothering."

Although Alzheimer's was the catalyst for the changes within us, and the connection between us, this did not make our mother's love for each other less real or less profound. What Mom gave to me, and what Mom received from me, created an unbreakable bond and actualized a precious and transformative love story that will be mine for the rest of my life.

Rev. Dr. Jade Angelica is a Spiritual Director and the author of Where Two Worlds Touch: A Spiritual Journey Through Alzheimer's Disease. Her mother, Jeanne died from Alzheimer's in January, 2011.