WDAY.com |

North Dakota's #1 news website 10,650,498 page views — March 2014

Published September 28, 2013, 10:00 PM

Minding Our Elders: Mom may be preparing to die

DEAR CAROL: My mother is 95 and her memory is slipping except for when she tells stories about her childhood. Then she’s amazing. While she’s generally alert, she’s quite frail physically. What upsets me is that she tells me that my dad, who died two years ago, awakens her at night and calls to her to come with him. These hallucinations are ruining her sleep because she stays awake to hear more. At least that’s what she tells me. I’m wondering if I should alert my family that this is a significant problem or just wait and see. Everyone lives quite far away. Mom seems okay except for that one issue. Deanna

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: My mother is 95 and her memory is slipping except for when she tells stories about her childhood. Then she’s amazing. While she’s generally alert, she’s quite frail physically. What upsets me is that she tells me that my dad, who died two years ago, awakens her at night and calls to her to come with him. These hallucinations are ruining her sleep because she stays awake to hear more. At least that’s what she tells me. I’m wondering if I should alert my family that this is a significant problem or just wait and see. Everyone lives quite far away. Mom seems okay except for that one issue. Deanna

DEAR DEANNA: Your mother’s memory about her childhood is natural for someone her age. As the ability to make new memories fails, the memories from the past often become exceptionally clear. You don’t say if your mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and at this stage a diagnosis may not matter except from the family genetic standpoint. However, her ability to remember her childhood so vividly is typical for someone who has slipped into this type of dementia. Dementia aside, when a person’s life becomes very constricted, as I assume your mother’s has, sometimes it’s simply more pleasant to concentrate on long ago, happier times.

Your mother may be sleeping more than she realizes, only thinking she stays awake for long hours waiting for her husband to call to her. Even if she isn’t sleeping much at night, she may be napping during the day to make up for it, so I wouldn’t worry about that too much.

More importantly, in my estimation, is that you treat her reports of hearing her deceased husband calling to her with respect. We could consider her experiences dreams, but there’s a great deal we don’t know about the death process. I’ve attended a number of deaths and I’ve also known many long-term elderly couples. It’s not unusual for the survivor to call out to a deceased spouse in a dream or in a semi-waking mode. Whatever she hears is as real to her as seeing you, so be careful not to devalue her experiences by calling them hallucinations.

I do think the rest of the family should be told about her reports of hearing her husband as well as given an up-to-date review of her physical health. Many clinicians believe that elders frequently decide on some level that they’ve had enough of life. When this happens, they may “suddenly” die, surprising the family who thought everything was going along reasonably well. Many long-term elderly couples die within days or weeks of their spouse, their reason for living gone.

Of course, it’s possible that your mother will continue to live for some time, though her age and physical frailty point to the fact that her life is waning. Provide respect, support, a listening ear and a hand to hold. When she does join your father in death, you’ll miss her but you’ll also know that she’s at peace.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

Tags: