Refighting the Civil War in Mom's Mind
In mid-August, I went to visit Mom at the nursing home right at the end of lunchtime. The dining room had emptied of residents, so Mom sat all alone, taking the final bites of her meal as the large television broadcast a soap opera.
"Hi, Mom! How are you doing today?" I asked as I approached the table where she sat. Looking up, I could see that Mom's face showed hints of distress. "I'm sad," she responded, her voice trailing off toward the end of the two-word sentence. "Why are you sad?" I questioned. Looking into my eyes, Mom slowly confided in me, "We lost the Civil War."
Startled, I asked Mom to tell me again why she was sad; Mom echoed the response that she had told me before. About that time, several of the nurse's aides were returning to the lunch room to enjoy their own meal. Not sure how our conversation would unfold, I thought it better to find a private spot in order to talk to Mom. "Hey, Mom," I replied. "How about going to your room so we can visit?"
Mom seemed to nod her head affirmatively, and I began to push her wheelchair down the hallway. As I did, I tried to figure out where her ideas were coming from. The possibility did exist that Mom, who was in her 80's at the time, could be stepping back into the past since I'm sure she had heard tales of the Civil War from her relatives, who had been citizens of the Confederacy. Yet, I also knew that Mom had long been an advocate of civil rights for every person, no matter what ethnicity, religion, or gender. So how to respond?
And then it hit me: the television set! On that particular channel, the local news was broadcast prior to the soap opera. And at that particular time, the headlines everywhere were consumed with the Civil War in Iraq and General Petraeus's report to Congress. Mom always liked to watch the news, and as her Alzheimer's disease progressed, it was the way she tried to stay in touch with what was happening.
"So, Mom, you said you're sad about the Civil War. Do you mean the war between the North and the South, the Yankees and the Confederates?" I questioned. She haltingly said, "Yes."
"Well, Mom, I have some good news for you. The good guys won that war!" I replied. "The Civil War that you're talking about is actually another war in another country. We're involved in it, and the news reporters are reporting that we may be losing it. But it's something you don't need to worry about right now."
About that time, a nurse's aide came in to help Mom get ready for a nap. As I took my leave, I placed my hand on Mom's shoulder. "Mom, promise me you won't be sad any more because of the Civil War. Remember, the good guys won!" She looked at me, nodded and smiled.
On my way out of the nursing home, I stopped by the nurse's station to mention our conversation about the Civil War and the link to TV. The nurse indicated that Mom was one of the few who had those types of reactions based on the news. Other triggers provoked other residents.
Still, this situation reinforced my view that as Alzheimer's progresses, you have to be careful what's playing on the television. Your loved one may take hold of a comment - in Mom's case, Civil War - and turn it into something completely different than what is meant. And the angst that can cause for your loved one can be stressful for everyone involved.