Redefining Vocabulary

My habits have changed during the past decade as my responsibilities for my mother’s care have increased. My vocabulary being the most poignant.

Before my mother’s short-term memory started to fail…and as importantly, before I first started to notice it failing…our conversations were pretty common. What you would typically expect between a mother and daughter.

She would call me up and ask, “So, what time did you tell me you would pick me up for brunch on Sunday?” And I would respond, “Remember, I said 11:00?” She would reply, “Thought so, but just wanted to double-check. See you then, honey.”

An fairly uneventful conversation. Hey, we all forget things sometimes, right? No big deal. And usually, our first response when asked a question like this is to acknowledge that we had already shared the information.

Yet, as I began to realize I was getting more and more of these types of queries from my mother, and my responses would usually begin with “Remember” or “I told you yesterday”, I came to understand to what degree my standard responses were influencing her mental health. And not in a positive way. Especially in the days before she acknowledged and took ownership of her failing short-term memory.

My mother has always been an organized gal. It is simply part of her nature. She enjoys having all her ducks in a row. And even though she tried to compensate by writing down every bit of information that came across her radar which she deemed important…there came a point in time when this methodology was no longer working for her.

As her short-term memory got worse, she was having problems understanding the random scribbles on her note pad. Or she couldn’t find her note pad. Or she had so many piles of note pads on her coffee table, she no longer knew which were current and which were old.

And as I heard the frustration in her voice when I would respond to her queries with the preface of “Remember”, I realized I had to change my approach. So, I made a definitive effort to remove certain words and phrases from my vocabulary. And “Remember” was the first word I crossed off my list.

Now I no longer start a conversation with the phrase “Don’t forget…”, and try not to reply to any of her comments by saying “Honey, we already talked about this”. And never, ever, nadda do I say “I have told you 33 times already in the past two hours”. I mean, really…why would I? To make myself feel superior? Whose purpose does that serve?

And when my mother goes into what I have dubbed “broken-record-syndrome”, where she repeats the same three questions over and over and over again in sequence…I give her three or four rounds of repetition where I answer her questions. Then I break the cycle by introducing a completely different topic. Which usually works. Ahem. Usually.

However, what I have found to be the most fascinating is how my redefinition of the vocabulary I use to communicate with my mother has weaseled its way into my daily personal and professional communications. I no longer ask my husband if he remembered to add the powder room trash to Monday night’s garbage run. Instead, I put a reminder note on the refrigerator Monday morning that says “Check Powder Room Trash”. And I never tell one of the folks I work with that I already emailed them the information they are asking me about…for the third time. I simply resend them the email again and again and again, with a notation saying “Here it is again. Let me know if you have any questions.” And reply patiently with the phrase “No worries” when they respond “Oops. Sorry, missed it. Thanks.”

It appears I am living and breathing proof of the old adage that whatever activity you do for 30 days in succession becomes a habit. Yet I have to wonder, at what stage in my life will the word “Remember” no longer be forbidden?  When will I stop feeling awkward starting a conversation with “Don’t forget to…”.  But then again, in the long run, does it really truly matter if I never go back to my old vocabulary?

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6 thoughts on “Redefining Vocabulary

  1. You are very astute to notice. It’s hard to be with/watch a slow descend.

  2. Really well written, and very relatable for me. My Mum is now in late stage Alzheimer’s. I too have had to learn a new language: Alzheimer’s. Now it’s about living in her world. If she tells me she visited her mother today, I ask her how that was and listen. I first learned to change my vocabulary and now I’m a better listener. I like to think, and I do believe that I am being rewarded for my patience with an improvement on my own social skills. My Mum is shaping me into a better person, even when she doesn’t realize it any longer :).

    • Thank you, Sandy, for sharing your comment. You have stated it so well when you said it’s about living in her world now. And how we have learned to be better listeners, and as a result, we are becoming better people. My mother is still teaching me. And as I take this journey with her at this stage in her life, I have come to realize I wouldn’t trade this time with her for all the tea in China.

  3. I’ll share this with friends who are dealing with similar memory issues. At 94, my mother-in-law’s memory is still good, but her hearing is so poor and her voice so soft, that it’s impossible to carry on a conversation. When they say old age is not for sissies, they’re not kidding.

    Your powder room trash can gets missed, too? Must be a guy thing–we have the same problem here on Tuesdays. I set it out in the hall so my husband can’t miss it.

    My husband and I have agreed that we sometimes need both our memories these days… and feel lucky to have each other.

    Good luck to you in your caregiver role.

  4. Thank you, merrilymarylee, for sharing your comments and for your support. You are so right: old age is not for sissies! My husband and I also work off a “two-brain” scenario. What is stored in his brain does not necessarily have to be stored in mine, and visa versa. It is like have two internal hard drives in our respective human computers…now all we have to do is keep the external backup drives up-to-date!

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